Making the punishment fit the crime
Jordan Blackshaw, 20, set up an "event" called Smash Down in Northwich Town for the night of 8 August on the social networking site but no one apart from the police, who were monitoring the page, turned up at the pre-arranged meeting point outside a McDonalds restaurant. Blackshaw was promptly arrested.Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, whose Croydon constituency bore the brunt of the anarchy, said tougher sentences sent a clear message that disorder would not be tolerated. But Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said sentences ‘should be about restorative justice’ not retribution, and he pointed out that some of those convicted had received sentences which would have been different if they had committed the same crime the day before the riots.
Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, of Latchford, Warrington, used his Facebook account in the early hours of 9 August to design a web page entitled The Warrington Riots. The court was told it caused a wave of panic in the town. When he woke up the following morning with a hangover, he removed the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. His message was distributed to 400 Facebook contacts, but no rioting broke out as a result.
When justice is seen to be done, it must also be seen to be proportionate and fair. When it ceases to be perceived as being so, it ceases to be just. This applies equally in leniency as it does in severity: it may be posited that a few years for murder is as offensively disproportionate as six months for stealing a few bottles of water.
One who opposes the four-year Facebook sentences tweeted His Grace last night, pointing out that the perpetrators were just ‘a bunch of kids pissing abt on FB’. In support of the sentences is the assertion that Sutcliffe-Keenan and Blackshawm pleaded guilty to inciting others to a crime which actually carries a maximum 10-year sentence. Although no rioting resulted from their Facebook exhortation, they clearly hoped and intended that there would be. This is not, as some aver, a ‘thought-crime’: a page was set up to incite others to violence. The fact that none ensued cannot be attributed to their virtue.
In a fragmented, pluralist, liberal democracy, it is inevitable that disagreements will arise that derive from different (and sometimes incompatible) conceptions of justice. In the United Kingdom, this has been constructed upon the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition which appeals to a set of first principles which provides justification for particular moral claims. In the conflicts between rival points of view, appeals to the primary precepts of the natural law seem to take their place as no more than the expression of one more contending standpoint. Because each of these contending points of view has within it its own standards and mode of justification, there appear to be no common, shared standards sufficient to decide between such rival claims.
While uniformity and consistency are desirable, society is perpetually changing and context shifting. If a state of war is sufficient for the UK to invoke the death penalty for treason, then civil disorder or the threat thereof must constitute just reason for more severe punitive responses than would be meted out during peacetime. The theory of law and jurisprudence must be based upon practical reason and subject to rational enquiry.
For His Grace, the four-year sentences handed down to Sutcliffe-Keenan and Blackshawm were fair, proportionate, and wholly justified. They intended to damage property, cause misery and inflict suffering upon innocent, law-abiding people, and that must merit a custodial sentence.
But in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, justice may be tempered by mercy. So it would be perfectly fair and wholly justified for the convicted pair to appeal, in accordance with the principles of natural justice, in order that another judge on another day may entertain arguments of mitigation in a time of relative tranquillity. And His Grace can’t say fairer than that.