Were 2011 rioters sentenced more harshly?

By Dr Carly Lightowlers and Dr Hannah Quirk

In the wake of the summer disorder of 2011, debate around the proportionality of sentences dispensed for relatively trivial behaviour, such as stealing bottles of water, ensued. Under normal circumstances, it is unlikely that any of those sentenced in relation to the disorder would have been arrested, never mind charged, for example for the theft of doughnuts, or accepting a stolen pair of shorts.

The impact of being drawn into the criminal justice system should not be underestimated – it can have a serious impact on family and community relations as well as result in diminished educational and employment opportunities.

Over 3,000 prosecutions were brought in connection with the unrest, which saw streets in parts of the country awash with violence, looting and arson. By 31 August 2012, of the 2,158 convicted, all but 20 had been sentenced with the vast majority of offending having taken place in London, followed by the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.

Our study, using Ministry of Justice statistics and data collected by the Manchester Evening News (MEN), showed that courts decided not to follow sentencing guidelines. This led to enhanced and apparently arbitrary punishments for those involved in the disorder of summer 2011.  We are aware of cases from the MEN data of very young suspects and trivial offences that were pursued. These include an 11 year old who was convicted of burglary having stolen a cap from a sports shop, and a 17 year old who was convicted of burglary having stolen a hooded top.

At the time, all the agencies were working under great pressure to restore order and courts made it clear that they saw their role as being to pass enhanced sentences to reinforce notions of punishment and deterrence.

Our most significant finding was that it was not just the courts that over-reacted.  A tougher stance was applied at every stage from arrest, to charge, to remand, to which court (Crown Court or Magistrates’ court) dealt with the case.

Much of the drive came from the Crown Prosecution Service. Suspects were charged with burglary rather than theft, which carries a tougher sentence. To a lay person, public order offences may sound more serious than property offences but the actual punishment is greater, as violent disorder carries a maximum sentence five years and non-domestic burglary up to 10 years.

In guidance issued on 15 August 2011, the CPS (2011) stated that ‘The serious overall impact of the disorder in August 2011 has been such that prosecution will be in the public interest in all but the most exceptional of circumstances”. In effect, this statement suggested that a substantial policy decision had been made at speed and without consultation, resulting in these cases being treated differently to all other types of offending.

From arrest to sentence our research found that a tougher stance was adopted for sentencing riot-related offending and an air of prosecutorial zeal and judicial abandon was commonplace.

Whilst the offending may have been impulsive, sentencing should not be. The position for sentencing riot-related offending in the future is unclear but the courts should make decisions on an individual level rather than impose a blanket decision that all disorder-related offending should fall outside the existing guidelines.



The full academic article is in the British Journal of Criminology

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