British courts have been accused by academics of handing out thousands of ‘excessive and arbitrary punishments’ in an atmosphere of ‘collective hysteria’ following the 2011 UK riots.
The criticism reflects growing concerns about the effectiveness of the harsh sentences handed out after the disturbances, after it emerged last week that 6,000 new offences, including murder and robbery, had been committed by London rioters alone over the past three years.
Researchers from Manchester University claim the criminal justice system ‘almost lost control’ in response to the days of looting, arson and violence that gripped several major English cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester.
The summer disorder began after a 29-year-old resident of Tottenham, north London named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police.
The riots were called the worst in living memory, and over 3,000 people were prosecuted.
The study, entitled The 2011 English ‘Riots’: Prosecutorial Zeal and Judicial Abandon analyses data to detail how courts abandoned normal sentencing guidelines.
“Normally judges and magistrates have to follow very strict guidelines. Very early on in this case, they threw all that out of the window,” said Dr Hannah Quirk, study co-author and a senior lecturer in criminal law and justice at Manchester University.
“They were picking numbers out of a hat. And we had some really shocking sentences.”
The report cites examples like mother-of-two Ursula Nevin, who was jailed for five months after she admitted accepting a pair of shorts looted from a Manchester shop by a friend. Her sentence was later reduced on appeal to 75 hours of community work.
Despite having no criminal record, London student Nicolas Robinson, 23, was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 (€4.70) case of bottled water during a night of rioting in south London.
“Normally, the police wouldn’t arrest you for such an offence. They wouldn’t hold you in custody. They wouldn’t take you to court,” Dr Quirk said.
“We’re absolutely not condoning what people did. But the sentences were grossly disproportionate.”
The study used figures gathered from the UK’s Ministry of Justice and newspaper reports.
Around two-thirds of defendants appearing before the courts for riot-related offences received an immediate custodial sentence with an average length of 17.1 months, compared to just 3.7 months for similar cases in 2010.
Of those suspects who appeared at the more senior crown court, over 80 per cent were given immediate custodial sentences.
This compares to just a third for similar cases back in 2010 – and the average sentence rose from 11.3 months to just under 20 months.
Suspects were routinely charged with burglary, which carries a much longer sentence than theft.
Two-in-three people charged in connection with the riots were kept in custody while facing trial, compared with just one in ten for serious offences in 2010. Youth offenders were also routinely named.
“Almost the whole process was a punishment,” Dr Quirk said. “If they ultimately got a community punishment, they had to spend a couple of nights in prison, which is terrifying. Particularly at a time like that, when the prisons were overcrowded and people were being shipped off to different parts of the UK.
“There would be obvious concerns for their employment prospects in the future; they may have lost custody of children. You can’t do any rehabilitative work in that environment.
“We’ve had to pay for people in prison who shouldn’t have been there. And if they’ve come out of prison and lost their jobs or homes, they are more likely to continue offending.”
Lawyer Franklin Sinclair, whose firm defended suspects in Manchester after the riots, said he was not surprised by the study’s findings. He added that sentences were very high, and bail was ‘simply refused for anybody, whatever the charges’.
“Guidelines were set aside on the basis that all the offences were hugely aggravated by the background of the riot, and the justification that deterrent sentences were needed. It was a sad time for the fairness of the justice system.”
Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the research, and agreed that courts had acted disproportionately.
“At the time of the riots, it was hard not to feel that hysteria was drifting from the streets into the courtroom.
"We know people were almost four times more likely to be sent to prison for comparable offences than would normally be the case, and prison sentences were roughly doubled in length.
"Filling the prisons for a few weeks with people caught up in the riots, some of whom had no previous convictions, was unnecessary and did nothing to answer questions as to why the 2011 riots happened in the first place."
Dr Quirk suggested both politicians and an adversarial Crown Prosecution Service, the UK’s independent prosecution service, influenced the courts.
“Officially there should be no mixing of politics and the judiciary. But it seems that there was quite a steer centrally from quite early on.”
But Justice Minister Mike Penning insisted that magistrates and judges are independent of government, and make their sentencing decisions based on the individual circumstances of each case.
“The courts, probation, youth offending teams and prison services worked hard to ensure that those who attacked their own communities during the public disorder faced justice quickly.
“They played a key part in stopping the riots from spreading further by delivering swift and firm justice.”