Local Time

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Riot convictions: How tough are they?


Press photographers take pictures of rioters being driven away in a prison van 
  Press photographers take pictures of rioters being driven away in a prison van

The courts dealing with rioters appear to be sending them to jail for longer than expected.
There has already been clear evidence of some long sentences - but remember - of the 1,300 who have already appeared in court, only about one in 10 of them have been convicted and sentenced.
Large numbers of the defendants are being sent to Crown Court because magistrates courts have limited sentencing powers.
Many of those cases are not likely to be dealt with by judges until September and October because of the sheer workload.
Judges have enormous discretion in how to deal with offenders. Maximum sentences are fixed by Parliament and there are discounts for early guilty pleas. But after that it is basically up to the judge. The Sentencing Council provides guidelines and the Court of Appeal develops important precedents - but judges can depart from guidelines with good reason.
Burglary convictions Many of the looters have been convicted of burglary which carried a maximum sentence of 14 years. The Sentencing Council has been recently consulting the public on new guidelines.
The consultation said that burglars should normally be jailed because of their impact on victims. Breaking into business premises tends to lead to shorter sentences than homes. The longest sentences are reserved for those who go equipped with weapons.
Here are a few of the sentences to date:

BURGLARY DURING RIOTS

NAME
LOCATION
OFFENCE
SENTENCE
Mabeka Bell, 23
Brockley, South London
Stole high value electronics from Curry's in Brixton
Six months
Nicholas Robinson, 23
Borough, South London
Stole a case of water from a supermarket
Six months
15-year-old girl
Manchester
Stole alcohol from looted supermarket
10-month referral order
Michael Fitzpatrick, 18
Manchester
Entered looted shops, picked up but dropped trainers, drank stolen champagne
Two years and four months in a youth offenders institution.
Thomas Downey, 48
Manchester
Took doughnuts from looted Krispy Kreme in city
16 months

Manchester Crown Court has dealt with more cases than other courts so far - and its judges agreed their own guidelines last week to reflect the severity of the disturbances in Salford and Manchester.
The Manchester guidelines are clearer tougher than what was envisaged by the Sentencing Council whose consultation did not cover burglary and looting in mass riots.
The Manchester judges said anyone who takes part in breaking into a shop should expect four to seven years - and those who follow them inside will get between two and five. The Downey case was considerably different to the others: the serial offender had left prison on the morning of the riots.
Theft and related offences Then there are those people who did not break in - but committed related offences, such as stealing, handling or receiving stolen goods. The maximum sentence for theft is seven years.
The current guidelines say that the starting point for jail is when there is some element of planning or significant damage. Again, the guidelines don't cover the specifics of a mass looting - but they do allow judges discretion to take into account aggravating factors.

Here are some of the recent cases:

THEFT AND RELATED OFFENCES

NAME
LOCATION
OFFENCE
SENTENCE
David Beswick, 31
Manchester
Handling stolen goods - found with a looted TV in his car
18 months
Linda Boyd, 31
Manchester
Theft - found carrying a bag of looted cigarettes and alcohol
10 months, suspended for two years
Ursula Nevin, 24
Manchester
Receiving stolen goods - accepted looted pairs of shorts
Five months - overturned on appeal. Now 75 hours community service.
Shonola Smith, 22, Alicia Smith, and Donness Bissessar, 22
Croydon
All pleaded guilty to entering looted shop with intent to steal
Six months

The three young women from Croydon, like Michael Fitzpatrick in the burglary table, had no previous convictions - but judges can also use sentences to send clear messages that criminality will not be tolerated.
Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, Manchester's top judge, said the area suffered a "sustained onslaught of burglary, robbery, theft, disorder and other offences" and that it would be wrong for him to sentence individuals without taking the events into account.
The facebook factor A huge part of the story of the riots has been social media. Rioters in London were using Blackberrys to organise their hits, out of sight of the law.
Other were less careful to hide their thoughts, as the following cases show:

DISORDER AND SOCIAL MEDIA

NAME
LOCATION
OFFENCE
SENTENCE
Jordan Blackshaw, 21, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22
Cheshire
Using Facebook to encourage disorder, sought to organise criminality similar to events elsewhere
Four years
17-year-old
Suffolk
Told friends on Facebook they should start rioting
12-month youth rehabilitation order, including ban on using social media. Curfew and 120 hours community work
19-year-old
Gloucester
Posted message on Facebook encouraging vandalism of a shop during disorder
Escaped charge, apologised to the shop owner.
18-year-old
Southampton
Incited disorder on Facebook
Released after writing an open letter apologising to the city

The judges had no sentencing guidelines for these kinds situations. The men were jailed under the Serious Crime Act which says that encouraging an offence carries the same penalties as the offence itself. Both men pleaded guilty at the earlier opportunity, were shocked by the sentences and are expected to go to appeal.
What we don't know at the moment is how judges in other cities will react when the large number of cases they are preparing to deal with come before them.
The Manchester guidelines have been shared on the judiciary's intranet - which means judges around the country will be aware of them. But the only sentencing decisions that really matter, in terms of setting precedent, are those made by the Court of Appeal.
And its judges are waiting for the cases to come in.

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