UK Riots: Are sentences fair?

For British society to return to normal and remove the fear of gang violence from the public, these sentences had to happen.

Riot suspect arrested and led away by police
Frank Manning
On 19 August 2011 16:06

The debate over the sentences handed down to the rioters who ran rampant through London has sparked a heated argument over whether they are deserved or too harsh.

However, it has not followed the usual split between left and right. Traditional elements of the Conservative party have lauded the sentences as a return to hard-line punishment of criminals, yet libertarians have urged caution against imposing authoritarian penalties simply to placate a baying media and the 81 percent of the public who believe the punishments are either “about right” or “too soft”.

Four years in jail for inflammatory comments on Facebook – which had no actual consequences other than to distract police – appears ludicrous at first when compared to the short sentences we usually read about in the tabloid press. They are even more shocking when considered in light of the debacle earlier this year when it was suggested rapists could be out of prison in less than two years.

The reasoning behind this approach to sentencing is about more than just public opinion though, despite the fact it played an obvious part.

David Cameron sensed the public mood well and commended the sentences as a strong message to would-be rioters, leaving Ed Miliband with little room to manoeuvre. Towing the tough sentencing line would please a public seeking retribution but would risk angering Guardian readers and cheerleaders such as Polly Toynbee. Meanwhile, denouncing them as unfair would undo the pressure Labour have managed to put the government under concerning the supposedly soft approach Ken Clarke has been taking to justice reform.

It is possible, though, to look beyond these opposing viewpoints and come to a different conclusion.

In terms of setting a precedent for future sentences, four years for the two Facebook troublemakers is clearly unsustainable. What they wrote was idiotic, ill-judged and ill-timed, but if incendiary comments on social networks lead to four years in prison, the cost of the Ministry of Justice may dwarf even the monolithic NHS.

However, these sentences are not for the criminals themselves. The latter are the unfortunate recipients of a stark warning to society in general that reckless criminal behaviour will not be tolerated. Whatever caused these riots, they were able to grow exponentially due to a sense that law and order had broken down and criminality would go unpunished.

The usual suspects of Polly Toynbee, Laurie Penny, Harriet Harman and Jody McIntyre have effectively given carte blanche to any disaffected youth who feels the world owes them a living, excusing any and all behaviour even when it destroys communities.

It’s noticeable that discourse with the rioters themselves has been limited to brief awkward interviews for the evening news. Instead, political commentators have used them to further their own world views without asking the permission of those affected.

Considering the excuses the liberal-Left have been so keen to espouse, tough sentences are the last bastion available to instil personal responsibility to a minority of young people who have been taught far too much about their rights and not enough about their responsibilities.

Without proof that the justice system can and will punish criminals on the news and on the front page of every newspaper, we could witness the exact same events the next time the police need to use force or carry out a stop & search. 

From a libertarian point of view it is unfortunate that a small group of muppets have to feel more than the normal force of the law. But for British society to return to normal and remove the fear of gang violence from the public, these sentences had to happen.

Frank Manning is a Researcher for the civil liberties pressure group, 'Big Brother Watch' and writes in a personal capacity.  

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