The Chair of Camberwell Green Magistrates Court, Novello Noades, claims that her court has been given a government “directive” that anyone involved in the rioting be given a custodial sentence. This follows David Cameron’s speach to The Commonons in which he said: “anyone involved in the riots should expect to go to prison”. However: Sentencing is a matter for the ‘independent’ judiciary under British Law.
Magistrates are being advised by the courts service to disregard normal sentencing guidelines when dealing with those convicted of offences committed in the context of last week’s riots.
The advice, has resulted in cases that would usually be disposed of in magistrates courts being referred to the crown court for more severe punishment and sentences for offences that would otherwise have attracted a far shorter term.
In Manchester a mother of two, Ursula Nevin, was jailed for five months for receiving a pair of shorts given to her after they had been looted from a city centre store. In Brixton, south London, a 23-year-old student was jailed for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water bottles from a supermarket.
The Crown Prosecution Service also issued guidance to prosecutors on Monday, effectively calling for juveniles found guilty of riot-related crimes to be named and shamed. Those dealt with in youth courts are normally not identified. The youngest suspects bought before the courts last week in connection with the riots were an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.
The sentencing advice from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service came to light after the chair of Camberwell Green Magistrates Court, Novello Noades, claimed that the court had been given a government “directive” that anyone involved in the rioting be given a custodial sentence.
HMCTS explained that they had advised magistrates to consider disregarding normal sentencing guidelines. It said: “Magistrates in London are being advised by their legal advisers to consider whether their powers of punishment are sufficient in dealing with some cases arising from the recent disorder- and that thos cases should be referred to Crown Courts.
The HMTCS continued: “Courts can therefore consider the riots as an aggravating factor in any offence, making stealing from looted shops more serious than conventional shoplifting”.
Last week David Cameron told the recalled House of Commons that anyone involved in violent disorder should expect to go to prison. The Ministry of Justice denied that it had asked the HMCTS to issue their advice.
The Judicial Communications Office, which issues statements on behalf of judges, also dismissed suggestions it had been involved. “The senior judiciary has given no directive in relation to sentencing for offences committed during the recent widespread public disorder,” it said.
Magistrates can only sentence offenders to up to six months in prison for a single offence. The chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, John Thornhill, has been pressing the government to raise the maximum sentencing power of magistrates to 12 months. “Many of these cases would have been dealt with more expeditiously and cheaper if we had the 12-month sentencing powers,” Thornhill said. “They would not have needed to be sent to the crown courts.”
In its advice on identifying youths, the CPS said: “We have issued guidance to prosecutors that states they should ask the court to lift the anonymity of a youth defendant when they believe it is required in the public interest that the youth be identified. Legislation permits the court to do so after conviction. These representations will be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Among those appearing before City of Westminster magistrates court on Monday was Wilson Unses Garcia, 42, of Walworth, south London. He was jailed for six months for receiving stolen property: two tennis racquets worth £340 looted from a sports shop in south London. When police searched his property they found the racquets still in wrapping and with price labels on them.
Garcia said he had had the racquets for some time. Police said he later told them: “I knew it was not right the minute they put them into my hand.”
His solicitor told the court that Garcia, who pleaded guilty, had not participated in looting, did not agree with the rioting and had accepted the racquets from a man he knew only from his first name as payment of a £20 debt.
Alicia Wilkinson, 22, was discovered with a vast amount of stolen guitars, televisions and hair braiding equipment when police raided her home in Outram Road, Croydon, at the weekend.