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British Judges Hand Out Stiff Sentences For Rioters


NPR's Philip Reeves reports from London.

PHILIP REEVES: Some sentences have been tough - in some cases, too tough, says Paul Mendelle of England's Criminal Bar Association.

PAUL MENDELLE: The goal must always be to pass a sentence that fits the crime. And the concern of some of us is that, because these cases are being rushed through en masse, and courts are sitting sometimes 24 hours a day, three days at a time, is that people are not being justly sentenced. They're being unjustly sentenced. They're being given sentences that are too heavy for the crime.

REEVES: Rebecca Tanner is a lawyer for one of two young men jailed for using Facebook to encourage riots in their hometowns. She says her clients pleaded guilty and wasn't expecting to be sentenced to four years in prison by a court in the northern city of Chester.

REBECCA TANNER: Obviously, as a 22-year-old in his situation, knowing that ultimately whilst he'd been extremely foolish, I think he was shocked given that his view would be he hadn't actually physically caused any hurt or physical harm.

REEVES: There are some other examples of disproportionately harsh sentences, says Vicki Helyar-Cardwell of the Criminal Justice Alliance.

VICKI HELYAR: We saw, I think, this week, a mother of two jailed for five months for receiving a stolen pair of shorts.

REEVES: The courts are supposed to use guidelines, says Helyar-Cardwell. But she adds...

HELYAR: We are concerned that the sentencing guidelines, which essentially exist to provide proportionality and consistency in sentencing across the country, are sort of being jettisoned at the moment. And we, you know, we have serious concerns about that.

REEVES: However, Prime Minister David Cameron robustly defended the tough sentences being handed out to rioters.

DAVID CAMERON: What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behavior. And to send a very clear message it's wrong, it won't be tolerated, is what our criminal justice system should be doing.

REEVES: Cameron was asked about the Facebook cases.

CAMERON: You weren't sitting in the court. I wasn't sitting in the court. We didn't hear the evidence. They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, a tough message, and I think it's very good the courts feel able to do that.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.