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
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.