Yesterday (16 August 2011) Chester crown court sentenced 2 men to 4 years imprisonment for “trying” to incite riots that never actually happened. And David Cameron, who is supposed to be the prime minister of Britain, not a judge or legal commentator, said it was “very good”, adding:
“What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behaviour and to send a very clear message that it’s wrong and won’t be tolerated is what the criminal justice system should be doing.”
Of course it’s terrible that riot and looting went on across England. But what do the riots that actually happened have to do with what Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan did? Moreover, Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan pleaded guilty to the charges – which makes me wonder what kind of low-grade legal advice they’d been given – and an early guilty plea is supposed to result in a reduced sentence. So this pair of clowns would have got maybe 10-year sentences if they’d pleaded not guilty? 10 years for not inciting a riot? What are our judges smoking before entering their court rooms?
MPs and civil rights groups have spoken out against the sentences, unsurprisingly. But what should be surprising is that prime minister Cameron said the sentences were “very good” – before adding that it is down to the courts to decide sentences. So, which is it, Cameron? Do judges have the discretion on sentencing here? Or are you sending (barely) concealed message to the court that anyone who says anything not in line with his beliefs deserves to rot in jail for as long as possible?
In Britain, the government proposes laws. Parliament debates, fine-tunes then passes the laws. And the police and courts enforce those laws. Cameron shouldn’t be telling judges how to do their jobs. Lord Carlile, the government’s former terror advisor accused ministers of appearing to “steer” the courts into handing down the more stringent sentences. Lord Carlile, a barrister and former Liberal Democrat MP warned that the sacrosanct separation of powers between the government and the judiciary had appeared to have been breached by some of the messages coming out of government since the riots engulfed neighbourhoods last week.
Fortunately, not all judges have been castrated by Cameron and his henchmen. The same Evening Standard article reports that a court in Bury St Edmund’s let a teenager walk free after his guilty plea. He had sent Facebook messages saying “”I think we should start rioting – it’s about time we stopped the authorities pushing us about. It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once so come on riot – get some – LoL” Bad, to be sure, but hardly evil. His barrister said his client “had been a bit of a prat” – which pretty sums up Blackshaw’s and Sutcliffe-Keenan’s actions too.
Also, a Lambeth teenager who had been caught on CCTV hurling sticks and spades at officers, was allowed to walk free after his uncle, a Premier League football player, offered him somewhere to live outside of London.
This variation in judicial decisions is good, as it demonstrates that not all judges are bowing and scraping before their governmental overlords. But it is clear that a substantial number of judges are all too keen to please their masters. In the Guardian, Lord Carlile said:
“I don’t think it’s helpful for ministers to appear to be giving a steer to judges. The judges in criminal courts are mostly extremely experienced and well capable of making the decisions themselves. Ministers should focus on securing the safety of the public.”
The lord, who served for six years under Labour and the coalition until March as the government’s anti-terror adviser, added: “”Some judges may feel that and some ministers may feel that they have had a responsibility to use the language of sentences rather than policy.”
The authorities doubtless think it’s important to stamp down hard on some people’s recent behaviour. But that doesn’t mean the courts should become kangaroo courts blindly following the government’s instructions. Every single case is different, and each should be dealt with on its own merits. The government is beginning to see the consequences of its actions and policies; and they are scared of those consequences. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, they should try to fix the damage they have done. Otherwise today’s Britain will be just like the 1980s, when widespread civil unrest rocked the country.
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