Two young men inciting others to riot by placing messages on Facebook have each been sentenced to four years in prison and already there have been howls of outrage that the sentences are too severe. The barrister representing one of the men said ‘the family were somewhat shocked at the sentence.’ But are the sentences that severe? It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was a joke. If that is the case it was rather stupid to say the least. What if someone hell bent on mischief did start a riot with its concomitant looting and arson in their home town, so far free of any disorder, and just say a family trapped in one of the buildings set alight died in the fire, would the sentences then still seem to be too severe? The accused intend appealing against their sentences. It will be interesting to see what happens. The men both admitted encouraging crime in Northwich, although there were no outbreaks of disorder in the town and he judge said he hoped the sentences would act as a deterrent. In that case hadn’t they better stand, appeal or no appeal?
Solicitor Rebecca Tanner said ‘No actual riot did ensue as a result of the post that the defendant posted on the Facebook site.’ As though this excuses their actions. The appeal will evidently be on the grounds that the sentence was disproportionate to the offence. "Obviously, as a 22-year-old, in his situation, knowing that ultimately whilst he'd been extremely foolish, I think he was shocked, given that his view would be he hadn't actually caused any physical hurt, or physical harm, or caused any damage as a result of his actions."
The Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Carlile, president of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said he was "surprised" by the sentences. The Chester sentence was handed out by a very experienced and highly regarded judge who was reflecting the views of the community he serves. But the sentences are heavy, and there are no guideline cases for judges to work from for this situation.
There has also been criticism of the men's sentences from MPs, barristers and campaigners, who have said the sentences handed down to some of those involved in riots across England were too severe. Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said sentences "should be about restorative justice", not retribution, while Labour MP Paul Flynn said the government was "throwing away sentencing rules".
And leading criminal barrister John Cooper QC said he believed some sentences were "over the top" and likely to be overturned by the Court of Appeal. But Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said "exemplary sentences" were necessary and that people needed to understand the consequences of rioting, looting and disorder.
People need to understand the consequences of any anti-social behavior, that is knowing right from wrong, even if it doesn’t involve the law – but of course they won’t.