English law is incredibly flexible. For most crimes like theft or criminal damage there are a large range of penalties judges can use from imprisonment, to a fine, to community payback (getting offenders to clear parks or paint nurseries or the like). Judges and magistrates are supposed to follow sentencing guidelines, but also allowed to deviate from these depending on individual circumstances. Where someone convicted feels their sentence was unduly punitive, they can appeal it.
Anyone who is accused of a crime is deemed innocent unless they admit guilt or are found guilty. The presumption is that they should retain their freedom while they wait for their trial, and if guilty, their sentence. A minority of those accused of crimes are imprisoned on remand. This minority are suspected of absconding, reoffending or "interfering with witnesses" while they wait. Men, women and children can spend months on remand yet, if acquitted, are very unlikely to get any financial compensation. Imprisonment on remand destroys lives and livelihoods just as prison sentences do.
There are hundreds of people, mostly young, many children, who are or have been imprisoned on remand or sentence as a result of the riots. Some have never been convicted of a crime before.
Judges and magistrates appear to have reacted more harshly to the perpetrators of riot offences than to others. And today at the Court of Appeal they were deciding whether the riot sentences were harsher sentences and, if so, if such harsher sentences were justified. I'm glad the sentences were appealed but concerned that the Court may say the riots were special circumstances.
The riots did cause terrible damage to businesses and individuals. All perpetrators needed to be dealt with by the police, but to treat them more harshly is wrong, particularly when harsh means imprisonment. The police did get control of the riots. They are over. The question is how to stop another riot. Prevention is possible if offenders realise the damage they did and are rehabilitated. But imprisonment is unlikely to change attitudes. The prisons are overflowing and, in these circumstances, prisons can only warehouse offenders on short sentences or on remand. Community sentences and/or restorative justice offer a much better chance of rehabilitation. And an opportunity to heal community wounds. Using restorative justice, offenders learn what harm they have done, apologise to victims, and make amends. Unfortunately, in too many cases, rioters were imprisoned on remand or imprisoned on sentence or both. Maybe the riots will be a wake-up call, to show that prison is seldom the answer and that most solutions lie with the community.
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