21 August, 2011


Putting the judicial boot in

We are enduring the expected highly polarized debate about the appropriate punishment of the looters who took part in the festival of shopping with violence a fortnight ago.

At one extreme there are those who believe the scrotes' human rights to own a 50" plasma telly have been infringed and are demanding compensation for the brutality and trauma inflicted when the police lined up in their riot gear and wagged their fingers at the looters from a safe distance.

At the other end are those who want all of those who were apprehended to be hanged, drawn and quartered, boiled in oil, given a damned good talking to and finally transported, dressed only in their underwear, to spend the remainder of their worthless and miserable lives on South Georgia.

Well, let's not get involved in all that and instead look at the matter practically from a customer's point of view.

The judiciary are, we are told, handing down "exemplary" sentences. An exemplary sentence serves two purposes. The first is to deter potential future offenders. The second is to reassure the public at large.

As to deterrence, well let's start by dividing the perpetrators into three crude groups.

First-time opportunists. Normally law-abiding people who succumbed to temptation, swept up by the infectious excitement and "naughtiness" of the occasion. For most of them, mere involvement as "clients" of the criminal justice system will be traumatic enough to deter them individually from future misbehaviour. The impact of a criminal record on their legitimate careers will also be a signficant punishment. Will it deter others of the same ilk from future opportunism? I don't know, but somehow I expect the implications will not really get through to them; it will remain an abstraction to be regaled down the pub as Tarquin's jolly adventure among the lags or debated solemnly in the columns of the Guardian rather than a potential personal experience.

Petty scrotes. The chronically criminalized unemployable chav underclass we are always hand-wringing about. Are they going to be deterred by heavy sentences? I dunno, but they will be well familiar with the system and many will already have served short custodial sentences. They will have little fear of the punishment itself and even the thickest of them will have cottoned on that this is a one-off. Six months for nicking 200 fags this time. So what? When you get out in two or three months' time and celebrate with an afternoon of recreational vandalism and nicking, it'll be back to business as usual for your next offence. A stern look from the magistrate and a course in "thinking skills".

Serious criminals. They won't be deterred because, unless they were unlucky enough to accidentally trip over a policeman's baton because they were unable to see over the top of their pile of loot, they didn't get caught anyway, did they? Unlike the naïve and the stupid, they dressed anonymously and covered their faces. In all the lurid publicity of the prosecutions, we don't seem to hear much about this group, do we?

So not much exemplary justice there then. What about reassuring the general public? Well, I'm a general public and I'm not reassured. I don't see a criminal justice system responding with a firm and even hand; I see panic and desperate political theatre.

It's not simply that it's perceived as unfair; it completely undermines what little credibility our judiciary has. We have gone from seeing a criminal justice system that is weak, overlenient and hamstrung by idealistic human rights legislation to watching a criminal justice system that indulges in populist kneejerk reactions, that is politicized and above all arbitrary and unpredictable.

That is truly frightening. The arbitrary and whimsical judicial "standards" of the third world.

There is no consistency here, no sense of a fair and well-understood social contract, just a frightened and cornered animal lashing out.

The "multiplier" effect of looting during a riot has been put forward as a factor in the harsher sentencing, ie the concept that the looters acted in the knowledge that, even if no formal joint enterprise was involved, their sheer numbers diluted the effectiveness of the police, increasing their individual chances of escape. That's fair enough. But it's a fairly abstruse concept that needs to be communicated effectively to the public. But even if that can be achieved, I don't see that public being convinced that the "multiplication factor" is sufficient to justify promoting an offence that in normal times would be punished with a small fine and 20 hours' graffiti cleaning into one that gets you banged up for eighteen months.

A politically inspired orgy of tough sentencing convinces nobody.

We don't need a dramatic burst of sentencing so draconian and obviously over the top that most of it will be overturned on appeal, thus further diminishing the reputation of the judiciary. What we need is meaningful and effective sentencing, consistently applied, during "normal times". Then you can tack on a modest supplement for opportunism during a riot and we might have some faith that you know what you are doing.

The only thing I see wrong with these sentences, is that they apperar to be something "out of the normal".

These should be the sentences given out every bloody DAY, not just at riot fest.

I agree with FT, and not for the first time!

Excellent post again Edwin; this 'orgy of tough sentencing' is pure political kabuki.

The 4 year sentences imposed on the Cheshire 20 somethings, hitherto of good character, were especially suspect, for 2 reasons. Firstly, they induced the expected pavlovian reaction from the liberal judicial establishment. Secondly, they were really 'thought crime' sentences ; the men were simply guilty of expressing their desire for mayhem onto the interweb, where the DPP could claim (in the panicky climate that now exists)that they were actually expressions of intent, and not callow fantasies.

I regard the employed, educated wannabees as more culpable than unemployed greivance monger chavscum and that they deserve harsher punishment since they should have known better.

Possibly, banned, but isn't the corollary to that argument that we should be more lenient on the recidivist chavscum because they're too thick and morally incontinent to know any better?

Which seems to be how the system works in practice anyway.

My point in the OP was that the effective impact, social and psychological, of a custodial sentence on a normally law-abiding member of the employed or aspirant middle class is likely to be significantly greater than that of the same sentence handed down to a member of the unemployable recidivist underclass. Duwayne's grown up on the edge of the prison system so it's probably just a slightly more orderly environment to kip in for a few months, then back to business as usual. But it's going to come as one fuck of a shock for young Tarquin — and for his future.

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