The Blog

Four-year sentence for Facebook rioters shows we are losing our heads

In the wake of the riots, it was wryly observed by more than one commentator that those of a normally liberal disposition were suddenly getting in touch with their authoritarian side.

In the wake of the riots, it was wryly observed by more than one commentator that those of a normally liberal disposition were suddenly getting in touch with their authoritarian side.

It is often the way. I'll never forget as a 22-year-old witnessing the 7/7 terrorists attacks and experiencing a surge of pained blood lust that frightened me. Track down anyone involved, I thought, knowing my sister had narrowly avoided one of the underground trains that was blown up, and send them to the gallows.

The first point about this sort of response to appalling acts of criminality and violence, particularly those that touch us personally, is that it is perfectly natural. The second is that as rational people who know better, we are supposed to calm down and get things into perspective before we act.

Two men, Jordan Blackshaw (20) and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan (22) have just been handed prison sentences for inciting public disorder on Facebook. The riots they called for - in Northwich and Warrington respectively - never occurred, and neither man has a prior conviction. They will spend four years in jail.

To many people including myself, this feels like the judgement of a society that hasn't calmed down and got things into perspective yet.

No one would attempt to dismiss the actions of these two men. There is something particularly unpleasant about the thought of an armchair trouble-maker who, upon seeing the lawlessness and grief on television reacted with glee rather than despair.

But as anyone who has spent time on social networking sites or comment boards will testify, the internet is a place where posturing and vitriol can easily get out of hand. Emboldened by the illusion of anonymity, users will tear into one another, or triumph a point of view in a manner totally out of proportion with how they would act in the real world.

There is a side point here that people need to learn to watch how they act online, but what does this tell us about the so-called Facebook rioters now set to spend their early twenties in jail?

That they are probably no more than 'wannabe' hard men who, between their TV screens and laptops got swept up in a frenzy of stupid, ugly (and drunken) bravado that didn't strike them as particularly real. You imagine that, when they walked out of their houses and arrived at their designated meeting spots, a wave of relief washed over them when they realised no one had been foolish enough to heed their calls to 'smash Down Northwich Town' or 'have a riot in Latchford'.

My issue with their four year sentence is simply: what purpose does it serve? How long would it really take sat in jail to show two naive young men that trying to play the hard man on Facebook is a bad idea? And how long will it take for them to be turned into unemployable, bitter adults with an education in real crime and violence?

The argument, of course, is that this sends out a 'signal', but I don't think it sends out the signal the courts and the government are hoping for. What it says to average people is that all sense of proportionality and reason has abandoned our justice system at a time when it is facing its sternest test for years.

At the same time as Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan were given four years, one court in Manchester imprisoned a looter in his thirties who stole £500 of clothing to 16 months.

There is another argument that those calculated enough to instigate the rioting and looting - rather than those simply stupid enough to be swept up in it - are a greater threat to society. Agreed: but these weren't a pair of gang leaders, nor did they prove effective at pretending to be.

The hardened criminals who organized and incited the trouble in London, Birmingham, Manchester and other parts of the country - and those who committed acts of violence, arson and serious robbery on our streets - should face the sternest possible punishments.

But those people naive enough to try and mimic them, or hang around the fringes playing at being rebels would be far better punished by spending long hours cleaning the streets, rebuilding the shops and being confronted by the victims of the riots.

Sending them instead to our overcrowded jails for longer than many drink drivers, burglars and violent thugs just shows that in reaction to a crisis, our most vital institutions are losing their heads. The real test of our society now is surely whether we can stick to our principles of lawfulness and fairness when others are disregarding them. In the case of Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan, we have failed.