Riots comment: Red mist of retribution is clouding our judgement

Britain's fevered post-riot mood is creating a rush for justice which does no-one any good.

By Alex Stevenson

Our response to the riots is like a dog chasing after its own tail: a lot of mad, frenetic yelping, that just ends up going around in circles with no meaningful positive effect whatsoever.

Reduced to its bare essentials, this was all very predictable. If you were to ask someone a few months ago what would happen if, hypothetically, mass disorder was to break out – and succeeded in persuading them that it wasn't anything to do with spending cuts – they would have predicted the political fallout we've seen this week with ease.

The prime minister reverts to his party's authoritarian instincts on law and order, embracing harsh sentences for all those involved. The Liberal Democrats, after a bit of hand-wringing, begin to speak out against these steps, but don't have much impact. That's about where we are now, isn't it? No surprises, just yet.

Anger has certainly shaped public debate about how to deal with the rioters and the society which fostered them. It's easy to sympathise with the victims. Many of us were affected to some degree by the disruption. We remember the anxiety, the powerlessness, until, on night five, the police's tactics finally succeeded in dampening the disorder.

This delirious public mood creates two problems. Firstly, the impulse to impose draconian punishments is leading to inconsistent sentencing up and down the country. One woman got six months for handling a pair of shorts which had been looted in the riots, for example. You could argue anyone who wasn't involved in the smashing up, the stealing, the disorder, deserves less than those who participated. Or you could contrast that with the same sentence handed to a 23-year-old Londoner who stole a bottle of water from Brixton.

Secondly, the atmosphere of grim vengeance is obviously influencing judges and magistrates. Yesterday Sir Menzies Campbell suggested it was wrong for politicians to interfere either way. Politicians shouldn't have a "league table" of sentences they approve of and those they don't, he suggested. That's true, to an extent. But politicians play a key role in voicing the public mood; it's their job to reflect the opinion of their constituents as best they can. However desirable it would be to shut politicians up a lot of the time, it doesn't apply here.

Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, united these two headaches on the Today programme this morning. He said: "Judges and magistrates live in the world like the rest of us. They read newspapers, they watch television. We need to protect their reputation… people read about these sentences and scratch their heads."

One way of protecting the standing of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public would be for sentencing guidelines to be set down, something which hasn't happened yet. It sounds like a good idea, but the voices of pragmatism aren't yet winning through. Author Mark Earls' book Herd, which seeks to assess collective behaviour whether it involves standing up in a Mexican wave or participating in a riot, explains just how it is that humans get carried away too readily, for example.

The problem is that argument reinforces both cases. It could be used to justify a more lenient approach. Equally, it could lend weight to calls for stiff sentences to make people think again next time violence rears its ugly head. Where does this leave us, as we debate the pros and cons of each case? Running around, chasing our tails, making no progress whatsoever.

That's why we rely on the judges to detach themselves from this frenzy. There's a reason we leave difficult sentencing decisions to judges and not the victims: they do not allow emotion to come into play and take a considered, calm view instead.

But is that really possible in the current circumstances? As Britain demands a reckoning for the rioters who caused such panic just a few days ago, the question we need to ask ourselves is: are the judges, like all of us, victims too?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.