So two independent Facebook users (i.e. there was no conspiracy between them) have been handed down 4-year gaol terms for inciting others to riot. They weren’t very successful: they proposed a meeting place and a time, but no-one turned up. Four years is within spitting distance of the minimum term for rape. Both defendants also pleaded guilty, so presumably these prison terms had already been discounted, and would otherwise have been even higher. If they weren’t discounted, one might reasonably enquire why not, since this is the usual procedure.
Let’s repeat that salient fact: they pleaded guilty. They have recognised that they committed an offence, and I am not suggesting otherwise. My complaint is not with the prosecuting authorities for bringing the cases to court. My complaint is about the severity of the sentences. I’m happy to bet that they’ll be reduced on appeal, but that’s hardly the point. Indeed, that would make this initial decision even worse, since even more public money will be needlessly wasted.
There are many reasons for arguing that these cases should have attracted sanctions at the lower end of the sentencing scale, not the higher. Generally, defendants are punished more for what did happen rather than what might have happened. There was, as already noted, no conspiracy between these two defendants, nor between either of them and anyone else. Their Facebook messages were not the result of a plan, but of the foolish desire to be involved in events that were happening in any case. The messages were not even meant entirely seriously: one defendant at least said it began as a joke.
So are there any countervailing reasons why a stiffer than average sentence was indeed appropriate? The aggravating factor seems to be the riots themselves. The defendants diverted police resources at a time when they were already over-stretched, and that’s by no means a trivial aspect of the case. I think that is pretty much the limit of justifiable aggravations.
All the other matters that are being wheeled out as justifying these draconian sentences appear to me to be weak at best, and entirely illegitimate at worst. The public is baying for blood as it were, but it is no business of the judiciary to satisfy such desires. The fact that a social network was used to convey the messages is not in itself any reason for taking a harsher view of this case than a similar one using more traditional means. The infamous “Twitter joke” trial earlier in the year demonstrated just how paranoid the authorities seem to be about social networking. Just because Facebook has many millions of users does not mean that many millions of users will see a given message, or take any notice of it if they so. God knows that I’d be delighted if my tweeting got me even a tiny proportion of Twitter’s many millions to read this blog, but let me assure you, it doesn’t. And most disgraceful of all are the widely reported efforts of politicians to pressurise the judiciary into giving exemplary sentences in the aftermath of the riots, and to throw sentencing guidelines out of the window in the process. We have a separation of powers in this country for good reasons. The judges must brave public opinion and tell the politicians in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. This particular judge seems not to have done so, more’s the pity.