Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Cards for 62% of Sentenced London Rioters

Plenty of the more than 1600 people arrested for riot-related crimes in the UK over the past few days--as well as the 900 or so likely to be arrested soon--never expected to face any punishment at all.

But more than half of the first 150 UK rioters who thought they'd spin right through the UK's revolving court doors were in for a big surprise when they encountered weary British magistrates who were staying up all night to decide their cases. The young offenders had had the book thrown at them. Softcover.

British magistrates hear minor cases, and the maximum sentence that a magistrate can assign is 6 months in prison, which is reduced by up to a third if the defendant pleads guilty. Only half of that sentence actually is served in prison; the rest is served by "community service."

Typically, magistrates send only 3.5% of defendants to prison. Now, though, magistrates are sending 62% of those brought into court for riot-related crimes straight to jail, mostly for crimes of burglary or violent disorder, or they are sending them on to higher courts, without bail, to face more severe sentences.

In South London, for example, a surprised 23-year old engineering student with no previous convictions was sentenced to 6 months in jail for stealing a case of water worth £3.50.

He took the water "because he was thirsty," he said.

The prosecutor saw it differently:
This defendant has contributed through his action to criminal activities to the atmosphere of chaos and sheer lawlessness.
In Manchester, an 18-year old got 8 months for stealing two sweaters and a couple of pieces of musical equipment.

That's what he got caught with, at least.

Beyond public outcry and having to explain one's actions to one's neighbors, it's scenes like the following, of young bystanders complacently watching an arsonist set fire to a store, that must be moving England's magistrates to get the yobs off the streets, if only temporarily. (H/t, Gates of Vienna.)
Only about 500 of the anticipated 2,500 riot-related cases have been heard. The defendants are "overwhelmingly young, male and unemployed," with nearly 60 percent between ages of eighteen and twenty-four and 20 percent between eleven and seventeen.

England's Ministry of Justice is confident that the British prison system can "deal with any upsurge in demand" caused by the riots.

The UK has 2,500 empty beds in its adult prison system and 300 empty beds in its children's prisons.