London Riots: Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?

Two weeks after the shooting by police of a man in London led to rioting and looting, Britain is coming to terms with how to deal with the perpetrators of that violence. Courts have been working around the clock, but there are criticisms that initial sentences have been too harsh. Paul Lewis, of the Guardian, talks to Renee Montagne about the riot aftermath.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In England, many are asking whether the punishment fits the crime as courts begin to sentence those arrested over several days of rioting and looting earlier this month. The unrest was sparked by protests in a London neighborhood after a man was shot dead by police. Among the sentences already handed down, a four-year jail term for two men charged with using Facebook to incite riots.

Paul Lewis is a reporter for the Guardian newspaper. He's been covering this story since the first day. We reached him in London.

Good morning.

Mr. PAUL LEWIS (The Guardian): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What are examples of some other sentences that have struck people there as too harsh?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, there have been a number. I mean, actually, the sentences for the most serious crimes are yet to have been handed down. It's not just the harshness of the sentences that has raised concern. It's the inconsistency as well.

So to give you one of many examples, there was a young boy who smashed into a shop and stole a couple of items. He was jailed for one day. Contrast that with a case of a young teenage girl who didn't partake in the rioting or the looting, her friends did. They returned home with some looted clothes. She tried on a pair of shorts. She kept them. And she's been jailed for six months.

So there is a real range in inconsistency, which has concerned people. I mean, another standout case is one involving a man who stole bottles of water from the supermarket. Now, they amounted to around $5. And he received six months in jail as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday the judges were trying to send a - as he put it - tough message. How are people reacting to that message? Because there was widespread revulsion throughout England about the rioting, and most particularly the looting.

Mr. LEWIS: Absolutely. And I don't think you can underestimate how angry many people in the public here were. I mean, this was quite unprecedented civil unrest. And I do think that there is a public appetite out there for harsh sentences.

But we're seeing something change now, and I think there has been a bit of a turning point, with senior members of the government and the judiciary starting to voice concern that what we don't want to see is a replication of the kind of mob mentality on the street in the courts.

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, there are already appeals flooding in on some of these sentences.

Mr. LEWIS: Absolutely. And I think the one case which really stood out more than any other was the one you mentioned previously. It involved - I mean there were actually two cases in the same area. Both were young men who had used Facebook to create, you know, Facebook pages. We've all seen them. And these contained instructions or incitement for other people to participate in rioting. Now, the riots didn't actually happen. They never took place.

MONTAGNE: The rioting that was called for by these couple of couple of guys on Facebook.

Mr. LEWIS: Absolutely. But just the mere creation of these Facebook pages was sufficient for both of those men to receive four-year jail terms. And I know that one of those men is appealing their case. And I think there will be many other appeals as the months and years go on.

But the difficulty here is because of the length of term of some of these sentences, by the time the appeal reaches the court they will have already served that sentence.

MONTAGNE: Paul Lewis is a reporter with Guardian newspaper in London.

Thank you very much.

Mr. LEWIS: Thank you.

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