Two men in the United Kingdom have been given four year sentences for using social media to incite the recent London riots; some wonder if the punishment fits the crime.
At the beginning of August 2011, London suffered from almost a full week of riots. There was damage, injuries, and death. Now, British courts are looking to reprimand the 1000’s of people arrested during the chaos, and the first sentencing suggests there will be no “getting off easy”.
In northwestern England on Tuesday August 16th 2011, Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, received four year sentences for using Facebook to “organize and orchestrate disorder.” Blackshaw used Facebook to create an event – including time, date, and location – for a “massive Northwich lootin”, and Sutcliffe-Keenan created a Facebook Page called “Warrington Riots” which provided a time and date for people wishing to be involved in a riot.
Not exactly “good citizen” posts; however, there’s a catch: neither posting actually resulted in looting or rioting, causing concern from the public and civil rights groups about the harsh length of the sentences. Blackshaw’s solicitor notes that “It was something which was started as a joke by Jordan.” Undeniably, it was a bad joke, but is a four year sentence appropriate? Andrew Nielson of the Howard League of Penal reform told the Times that “there seems to be a complete lack of proportionality to some of the sentences. These make a mockery of proportionality, which is a key principle of the justice system.”
However, the Crown Prosecution Service defended the sentencing, arguing that the posts lead to panic amongst residents. Further, Prime Minister David Cameron supports the sentences; he was quoted in The Guardian saying, “What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behaviour and to send a very clear message that it’s wrong and won’t be tolerated is what the criminal justice system should be doing.” He continued: “They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, send a tough message and I think it’s very good that courts are able to do that.”
The real message being: we are using these men as an example and sending a message. Whether one agrees with the sentencing or not, both men will likely appeal the decision. Some experts worry that as more harsh sentences from the riots are handed out, it will put stress on an already struggling court system. Andrew Nielson of the Howard League for Penal Reform states: “It will be a further drag on the court system, which is already struggling — and that’s before considering the pressures on the prison system.”
For the two young men, a stress on the legal system is the least of their worries. While the men certainly deserve consequences for poorly thought out social media actions, if one compares their crime to other crimes that warrant four year sentences, Facebook posts simply don’t equate. As more and more rioters are sentenced, the issue of sentencing will certainly be raised again. What kind of message does such a harsh sentence actually send? Is it the message of a government interested in solving problems or a government seeking to make a point?