APNewsBreak: No advice to UK courts on riot cases

AP News
Posted: Sep 15, 2011 2:44 PM
APNewsBreak: No advice to UK courts on riot cases

Judges were not issued advice to get tough in the aftermath of England's riots, despite a wave of harsh punishments for offenders, the country's advisory body on sentencing insisted Thursday.

In a response to a freedom of information request by The Associated Press, Britain's Sentencing Council said it had not issued any advice to judges in response to the August riots, and did not hold records of any discussions between officials over whether it should offer guidance to judges handling people charged with riot-related offenses.

Arson, disorder and theft spread through London and other major English cities over four nights last month. Five people were killed and scores of stores were looted and buildings burned.

Britain's justice ministry said that the latest figures, which detail court appearances up to Sept. 12, show that 1,715 people have been charged with offenses connected to the riots, and that 176 people have been jailed so far.

The ministry acknowledged that its figures showed those involved in the riots have been handed more severe penalties than the sentences usually handed out to criminals.

At Britain's magistrates courts _ a lower court which can impose a jail term of up to six months for a single offense _ the average sentence handed to those jailed over the riots was 5.1 months in prison, compared to an average sentence of 2.5 months in prison for those convicted of similar offenses in 2010.

Judges at crown courts, which handle more serious offenses, have so far handed out an average sentence of 18.5 months in jail to rioters, compared with an average of 11.3 months in prison for similar offenses last year.

"I congratulate the courts for delivering swift and firm justice, which stopped the riots spreading further," Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said in a statement, praising the hefty punishments.

Analysts have speculated that courts were instructed to take a tough stance over the riots. However, the Sentencing Council _ the independent advisory body which sets out rules on penalties for specific offenses _ insists it had no role in encouraging a strict approach.

There had been no "correspondence drafted with the intention of providing advice on sentencing in respect of offenses committed during the widespread disorder in England in August," the body said in its response to the freedom of information request.

Asked if it had records of discussions on the approach to the riots, the body said it had found "no internal communications discussing whether or not advice ought to be provided in respect of sentences handed down for offenses related to the August unrest."

In one heavily criticized court case, two men were given four-year jail terms for attempting to incite rioting by posting messages on Facebook _ though the riots they attempted to organize never happened.

Another case saw a woman who took no part in the riots received a five-month jail term for wearing a pair of looted shorts her housemate had brought home. Her sentence was later overturned and she was ordered to carry out 75 hours of community work.

The four days of rioting, triggered by a fatal police shooting on Aug. 4 in north London's Tottenham neighborhood, were the worst civil disturbances to hit Britain since the 1980s.

England's prison population hit a record high following the jailing of hundreds of people involved, according to figures released last month. Statistics from the justice ministry showed the total prison population in England and Wales reached 86,654 _ just 1,500 places below the countries' operational capacity.

The justice ministry said Thursday that its latest figures showed that 27 percent of people charged with offenses over the riots had no previous convictions, suggesting that many of those involved in the unrest had no previous history of criminality.