Any lingering hopes the coalition might see the restoration of civil liberties and follow a more sensible sentencing policy after Labour's excesses, have been well and truly dashed this week as the courts dish out vengeful and excessive sentences on rioters and the government plots such draconian measures as no-go areas and controls over social media.
A major drain on this country’s finances is a prison system which locks far too many people up. It’s now only going to get worse.
Already it is clear the government is putting pressure on magistrates to deal with looters severely. Yesterday, Novello Noades, the chair of the bench at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court, told the assembled gathering magistrates had been ordered to pass jail sentences on all those involved in last week’s violence. She said: ‘Our directive for anyone involve in the rioting is a custodial sentence.’
Downing Street spent much of yesterday trying to persuade newspapers they weren’t trying to influence the decisions of independent courts, after all the government intervening in independent court procedures is a serious claim. But the front pages, from The Guardian to The Daily Telegraph, show they had little success. Downing Street’s argument was rather undermined by David Cameron himself. As he climbed up on his hind quarters in the House of Commons last week to give his emergency statement, the Prime Minister said: ‘Anyone charged with violent disorder and other serious offences should expect to be remanded in custody, not let back on the streets; and anyone convicted should expect to go to jail.’
As a consequence of this febrile atmosphere courts across the land are now acting with an efficiency and ruthlessness which wouldn’t be out of place in a tinpot dictatorship. The mobs which roamed our streets should be punished but now courts are being fuelled by a misplaced sense of mob vengeance which terribly undermines the justness of our courts.
So we now see cases where a 17 year-old girl, who has never been in trouble with the law before, facing a jail sentence after admitting stealing a bottle of Lucozade during the riots. The churchgoing teen, who hopes to sign up for a health and science course at college, went down to the riots and Peckham to see what was going on and took a bottle of Lucozade from a looted Poundland. She is now being held in custody with District Judge Tan Ikram considering ‘a lengthy period of detention’. Apparently, he took her guilty plea into consideration.
Elsewhere, a court heard about another character who also has never been in trouble with the law before also faces jail, despite there being no evidence against him. Anthony Leckey, 26, called police and tried to hand back the goods he nicked from a Comet store in Croydon, only to find they had already been stolen by someone else. Again, he’s in custody awaiting sentence.
And this evening we hear of the pair who have been jailed for four years each, not for rioting, or thieving, but posting comments on Facebook which incited rioting. That any rioting failed to occur seems not to be relevant. Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were arrested by police after they established the Facebook pages ‘Smash Down Northwich Town’ and ‘Let’s have a Riot in Latchford’ respectively. It can certainly be said these two are pretty stupid and considering the state of the country last week can expect a reaction by the state, but four years each is absurd. Both, Chester Crown Court heard, were of previous good character.
So while we have the courts behaving in this manifestly knee-jerk and unthinking fashion, it appears the government are trying to compete.
The families of rioters who live in council homes face being evicted and losing their benefits. I wondered to a colleague what secondary punishment a home owner convicting of rioting should receive and the only suggestion was they should be moved into the now vacant council homes.
Theresa May wants to increase police powers to combat rioting. We can ignore headline seeking gimmicks such as having water cannons on 24-hour standby – after all what use is a water cannon 24-hours after a riot. But the government is seriously considering introducing wider curfew powers for the police, to introduce ‘no-go areas’. This is an impractical policy more in keeping with apartheid South Africa not a mature democracy.
And the government is seriously considering adopting powers which would allow the authorities to shut down social networking sites like Twitter. Already the proposal has got the support of the Chinese authorities. In today's China Daily, their editorial spoke gushingly of the idea.
The newspaper said: ‘The British government, once an ardent advocate of absolute Internet freedom, has thus made a U-turn over its stance towards web-monitoring.
‘We may wonder why western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the Internet.
‘The Internet is also a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. For the benefit of the general public, proper web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary.’
Earlier, Nadine Dorries appeared on the Today Programme to defend the idea. She is no government spokeswoman but no senior figure has appeared to dismiss such an obviously reactionary, interventionist measure.
One keeps hoping a mature democracy would react in a mature fashion in the face of such a crisis, but no. Instead, the Tories have reverted to their default hang 'em and flog 'em position, while the Lib Dems continue their impotence. Mob violence is being followed by mob justice and it will do nothing to help pull the country out of this dark period.
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