Leading academics have accused British prosecutors of acting “like Judge Dredd” in the wake of the 2011 riots .
A new report published jointly by the University of Manchester and Liverpool John Moores University, which reviewed 3,000 prosecutions made in the wake of the riots, concludes that the decision to abandon sentencing guidelines was a mistake which led to excessive and arbitrary punishments.
Dr Hannah Quirk, a senior lecturer in criminal law at the University of Manchester and one of the co-authors of the report, said the length of the average sentence for burglary increased by 80 per cent in the wake of the disturbances.
She said: “Prosecutors acted in an avenging manner and that’s not their role at all. They should have been much more disinterested and they used totally inappropriate language.
“By doing so, they acted more like Judge Dredd than prosecutors serving the British legal system.”
Judge Dredd is a fictional comic book character known for instantly dispensing heavy-handed sentences in the course of policing.
Dr Carly Lightowlers, a lecturer in Criminal Justice at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “Much of the drive to prosecute in a harsh manner came from the Crown Prosecution Service.
“Suspects were charged with burglary rather than theft which carries a tougher sentence.”
Dr Quirk said comments on sentencing by recorder of Manchester Judge Andrew Gilbart QC in the wake of the riots led to the abandonment of sentencing guidelines.
She said: “Normally the courts have sentencing guidelines which constrain their judgement and they are legally required to follow them unless they think its not in the interest of justice not to do so.
“On this occasion, prosecutors thought that because the riots were so serious they were going to disregard sentencing guidelines and just pick figures out of the air.”
According to Dr Quirk, the average length of sentence for theft increased from 2.4 months before the riots to 8.3 months afterwards. The average length of sentence for burglary increased from 8.8 to 15.9 months.
Dr Quirk said: “The CPS are prosecutors and not Judge Dredd. From arrest to sentence our research found that a tougher stance was adopted for sentencing and an air of prosecutorial zeal and judicial abandon was commonplace.
“A prosecutor is supposed to be disinterested. Defendants were made to feel guilty before they’d even been convicted. It goes against the presumption of innocence.
“By way of example, the CPS sent out guidelines saying that defendants who were being charged with theft, should be prosecuted instead for burglary.
“You wouldn’t normally be arrested for stealing something like a doughnut and if you were, you’d be seen at a magistrates court and you certainly wouldn’t receive a custodial sentence. We had people convicted for stealing a bottle of water.”
There were over 3,000 prosecutions in the wake of the riots, which were triggered by the death of Mark Duggan in August 2011. In all 2,138 convictions were secured by August 31st 2012.
The study used Ministry of Justice statistics and data collected by the Manchester Evening News.
Dr Lightowlers said: “It was not just the courts that over-reacted. An ‘uplift’ was applied at every stage from arrest, to charge, to remand, to which court dealt with the case.”
Dr Quirk said: “I think people were very shocked by what went on and there was a feeling that the courts needed to send out a message.”
Justice Minister Mike Penning said: “Magistrates and judges are independent of government and they make their sentencing decisions based on the individual circumstances of each case and offender.
“The courts, probation, youth offending teams and prison services worked hard to ensure that those who attacked their own communities during the public disorder faced justice quickly.
“They played a key part in stopping the riots from spreading further by delivering swift and firm justice.”
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