Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Sentencing the riots

Last week, a single mother who’d been imprisoned for an offence in relation to the recent rioting and looting (and who happens to be my constituent) was freed following an appeal against her custodial sentence. She’d been convicted not of being involved in the riots – she’d been at home at the time – but of accepting a stolen pair of shorts from her lodger, who had been involved.

It was clear that the appeal judge considered a custodial sentence for this offence over-harsh and inappropriate. And given growing concern at the apparent overuse of custodial sentences against those involved in the looting, it will be interesting to see if this is the start of a pattern of successful appeals.  While I would always be cautious about commenting on individual sentences in cases where I wasn’t present in court and don’t know the full facts the court considered, it does seem to me  that the courts have been handing out tougher than expected sentences to those involved in the looting and rioting – something that I do, however, recognise enjoys strong public support.

The overall effect of the increased use of custodial sentences (and increased use of remand pre-conviction) has been an increase in the prison population of around 1000 – something the Prison Service can accommodate in pure numbers terms, but which is undoubtedly creating strains inside our gaols. The governor of Manchester Prison told me this week that the riots have brought  some very vulnerable people into custody for the first time: those with no previous criminal record, who became involved in the rioting and looting on the spur of the moment, and who’d never have expected to find themselves in this situation. They’re shocked at what’s happened to them, they’re frightened, their plans for the future are falling apart – in prison, they present as highly distressed, even possibly suicidal, placing significant additional demands on prison staff.

I don’t for one moment condone the criminality and violence that took place earlier this month. It’s absolutely right that looting and rioting attract more severe penalties than might normally be seen for offences involving disorderly behaviour or theft – there’s no doubt that in terms of applying sentencing guidelines, the circumstances in which these offences were committed, the widespread breakdown of social order, the fear caused to law-abiding citizens, the significant damage to people’s homes, communities and livelihoods, are serious aggravating factors that the sentences reflect. But even taking account of that, it worries me that sentences overall do appear to be more punitive than I’d have expected, it worries me if there hasn’t been proper regard also for any mitigating factors in relation to the nature of the specific offence or the character of the offender, and it worries me that the grounds for refusing bail to those arrested may be based predominantly on the seriousness of the offence, rather than a proper assessment of the risks of further offences being committed, or that the defendant might abscond or interfere with witnesses – relevant and appropriate considerations for courts in deciding whether to grant bail. 

Our courts work to well-established guidelines in passing sentences and taking bail decisions. These guidelines operate as a framework for balanced decision-making, and from my many years’ experience as a magistrate, I’d say they are perfectly well-designed to support the courts in their decision-making now in relation to the riots. So am I right to be concerned at the sentences that have resulted? Well, if cases like my constituent’s are typical, yes I am – as, it seems, was the judge in that appeal.

What really worries me is the extent to which the political context could be shaping the sentencing and bail decisions of the courts. Our courts have to remain completely independent, but they do hear the tone of the public discourse. The prime minister’s uncompromising stance and aggressive language reflects, and is also driving, public outrage and anger at the violence and the looting. Should we be worried if the courts’ decisions reflect that?

I think it’s vital that our judges don’t allow the politics to shape their sentencing decisions. Our courts have a responsibility to ensure sentences are appropriate and proportionate, to apply the sentencing guidelines fairly, and to ensure the purpose of the sentence – to punish and deter, yes, but also to rehabilitate and to provide justice for the victim – is rational and thought-through. Tory MP Robert Buckland made an important point in the debate when parliament was recalled when he suggested the most appropriate sentences in some cases could be for community payback orders, a powerful form of restorative justice that I strongly support.

I don’t want sentences to be over-lenient.  I do think those involved in rioting and looting must face the force of the law. I agree that the context in which the offences were committed aggravates their seriousness, and that sentences passed must reflect that. But sentencing’s about balancing all the relevant factors – and sentences must be fair, proportionate and appropriate if justice is to be properly served.


Kate Green is MP for Stretford and Urmston and writes a weekly column for Progress


Photo: Steve Calcott

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Kate Green MP

is shadow minister for disabled people. She is member of parliament for Stretford and Urmston and a former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group. She also served as a magistrate for 16 years


  • Kate

    I fully support your concerns.

    I recognise the public clamour but fear that the general emotion is more one of revenge than justice – and revenge rarely results in fair and balanced judgment

    I have a number of concerns about the current situation. While of course no one can condone the action of the rioters, punishment has to be (in my view) restorative and proportionate. I do worry that we are sending people who are not inherently criminal to universities of crime, so all their sentence will do will serve to educate them what else they can do next time.

    I think also that if you accept the basic premise that no one is born evil, then everyone has a moral compass. A good number of rioters (I don’t include the gang leaders in this) were, I believe, opportunists swept up in the excitement of the moment, and for them, this excitement (and maybe the urging of their peers) caused them to overstep the mark and steal some items or throw a brick through a window (doubtless thinking the worst they could get would be a caution, asbo or community sentence).

    These people now have the shock of a prison sentence. Yes it may deter some, but to a substantial number I believe that it will just make them angry, so that following their release when the riots happen again (and I choose my words carefully, I do believe that unless there is a massive shift by the coalition then more riots are a case of when rather than if), they may now think, well I’m going to prison anyway, so I may as well torch the shop rather than just burgle it, because a fire just might destroy the evidence that would put me inside, so far from correcting the moral compass, these sentences push the compass further adrift.

    I do believe that community payback would be appropriate punishment for a good proportion of those convicted in response to the rioting

    I do also utterly condemn the suggestion that the families of those charged with rioting should be threatened with eviction. Yes punish the offender, but to punish the family too takes our justice down a road which I for one do not want to travel.

  • So punishment should NOT be punitive? Increases in the prison population were good 1997-2010, but bad now? The law of conspiracy and joint enterprise, widely construed so as to facilitate collective punishment, was good 1997-2010, but bad now, in circumstances when the widespread character of the rioting and plundering was well known to participants? Public (good) and political (bad) expectations should and should not be taken into account in sentencing?….Seriousness of imputed offence should in no way count in bail criteria…? Why is community reparation, a vague and populist phrase, more important than direct restitution of damage directly done to identifiable victims driven out by arson… not to mention murder by burning….? Kate gives no criteria whatsoever for what is and is not appropriate. I know MPs must grandstand every now and then, but why not try to address the problems?

  • Sometimes we can all see when something is clearly wrong. And the line of people queueing up to out-do eachother in their condemnation of the rioting looks very wrong to me. When that translates into a frenzy of sentencing that I – as a lawyer – have never seen the like of before, then something is clearly wrong. It is a brave person who challenges this frenzy, but when we all look back on this summer and our reaction to it, I hope we shall ask ourselves some very tough questions about our motives and our fears and the effect they have on those around us.

  • I fully agree with you, Kate that many of the sentences doled out recently have been more ‘hang-em and flog-em’ than considered and proportionate. Far too many magistrates appear to have abandoned the ‘blindness of justice’ in favour of the ‘clamour of the mob’. It is not surprising they and others have liberally sprinkled their remarks on punative sentencing with phrases linked to the ‘voice of the public’ to justify their views. ‘Public outrage’, ‘a public rightly angry’, ‘the hostility of the public’, ‘a public craving for convictions’ etc. have been bandied about but on which facts do they rely to justify these generalisations? The media? Opinion polls? Gossip? The real truth is, no-one can claim to know the opinions of a small number of people let alone the majority of the country. I tend to switch off when people (usually politicians, public figures or journalists) claim to know the the ‘public mood’ – it is usually a feeble ploy to con the listener into thinking their unrepresentative opinions are shared by ‘everybody’. No-one should claim to know the ‘mood of the public’. I doubt if such a ‘mood’ even exists. In our pluralistic society there will never be anything like unanimity of view. Too many politicians and journalists (con-joined twins?) are forever quoting ‘opinion polls’ as justification for their views but we all know that polls only produce the results the pollsters want. By simply mainpulating the wording of a question you can obtain a result completely opposite in nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that our con-joined twins pick and choose which polls to quote.
    I do not expect our media to reform its practices but I wish our politicians would express their OWN views and not (falsely) claim the backing of the public. It diminishes proper informed debate and it tends to play to the ‘common denominator’ or, as in the case of many magistrates, twisted our courts into an atmosphere of mob rule. I am reminded of the good old days of Robespierre.

  • I agree with Kate. The sentencing has to be balanced. The heavy custodial sentence give to the lady in question who accepted a pair of stolen shorts, was outrageous. I couldn’t believe that the Magistrate, having said that she was a bad example to her 2 children, then quite calmly deprived those children of their mother for 5 months. It should be a last resort for women with children to be sent to prison. You will probably notice that women tend to get a heavier sentence than men for the same crime. Is this because “women should know better”?

    Community Pay back schemes are much more civilised. The courts should try harder in prevent youngsters getting a criminal record at an early age.

    The other point I’d like to make is that the harsh treatment for rioters, sets a precedent for any other form of civil unrest, whether it’s people on a Demonstration against this Government or trade unionists on a protest march for better pay and conditions. All it takes is a member of the Special Branch dressed up as a demonstrator to smash a shop window for the “Riot Act” to be read! This is a case of the Ruling Class flexing its muscles and protecting its property.

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