Facebook “inciters” didn’t so much get a sentence as a whole bloody paragraph

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.

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6 thoughts on “Facebook “inciters” didn’t so much get a sentence as a whole bloody paragraph

  1. How very bizarre. It does indeed appear that a disproportionate punishment has been meted out under the guise of “setting a firm example”. And this the day after Jack Tweed, former partner of Jade Goody, was given his third criminal conviction: 100 hours’ community service for assault which, particularly considering that he has previously served 4 months’ jail time for GBH and 12 weeks for common assault, seems incredibly lenient. Not so much a case of letting the punishment fit the crime as tailoring the punishment to fit the degree of public and political outcry.

    • The Jack Tweed example adds piquancy to the sentencing discrepancies that are daily tumbling out of the riots’ aftermath. Maybe being “lovable” rogue partner of dead celebrity is a greater mitigation than one might have supposed.

      It certainly gives the lie to my contention that actual harm caused is more severely punished than theoretical harm not actually caused. Sometimes it seems that the criminal justice system in this country is about to collapse under weight of its own inconsistencies.

      • As an Arsenal fan, I am of course reminded of Tony Adams’ imprisonment for drink-driving. Not that I’m condoning him in any way, of course, but from what I recall it was his first offence but he was more than 25 times over the legal limit – I’m not sure I’d have been able to get into a car at that point, let alone drive and crash one! – and smashed into someone’s wall. No one injured, fortunately – nothing more than property damage. He got a four-month sentence (he served about eight weeks in the end). Of course, it was ‘unfortunate’ that he was a high-profile celebrity rather than John Smith – and doubly so because his case came up in the court a week before Christmas, meaning he was set an example of twice over. If it had been you or I in the middle of summer, it’s pretty unlikely we would have received more than a disqualification and a hefty fine.

        Consistency, shmonsistency.

  2. First off I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Cheers!

    • The first thing I do is to rid my mind of any thoughts connected to Apple and its iphone. I suggest you do the same. I’ve helped you out by editing out your spammy link to a pointless YouTube video. I do hope you appreciate my efforts…

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