Lives of young people with no previous convictions being ruined at taxpayers' expense, says senior prosecutor
A "case hardened" senior crown prosecutor in west London says she has been reduced to tears by the severity of some sentences being handed out to teenage riot offenders by the youth court.
Ann Crighton, who has worked for the Crown Prosecution Service for 18 years, said the lives of young people with no previous convictions who got caught up in the August riots were being ruined at taxpayers' expense.
She cited the case of a 17-year-old boy "from a very respectable family, who had never been anywhere near the police before", who was sentenced to 18 months custody by West London youth court after handing himself in to police.
Crighton prosecuted in the case, but said that she, along with "most people in court" had tears in her eyes when the judge sent him to a young offenders' institution.
"Was that justice? Because as a prosecutor, I don't think it was. That boy's life has been ruined ? and I'm paying for that," she said during a Law Society debate into riot sentencing.
Crichton's concerns were echoed by the former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC, who spoke about a "collective loss of proportionality" which afflicted the courts after the riots.
Crighton, who appears to be the first prosecutor directly involved in bringing riot cases to speak out publicly, claimed her concerns were shared by some of her CPS colleagues.
The boy in the case, an A-level student who hoped to go to university, had become involved in the looting in Ealing, west London. He entered a cafe, taking two bottles of wine which he passed on to friends; someone then handed him a T-shirt, which he also gave away.
The next day, his parents had marched him to the police station, taking the clothes he had been wearing at the time to show the police. He made a "full and frank" confession, and expressed regret for his actions, said Crichton. "Even the police said how remorseful he was."
In court, the defendant produced excellent references from his school and his parents and older brother spoke on his behalf. The boy also addressed the judge directly and pleaded not to go to prison.
He admitted that at the time of the offence he had got carried away, and thought what he was doing was funny, rather than criminal.
Crichton said: "He just didn't think about his actions, didn't think about the consequences ? but that's what young men are like. It's called growing up."
Those facing riot-related charges are receiving sentences of up to two or three times longer than the normal term for similar offences. Those convicted of theft are going to prison for an average of 7.1 months, compared with the normal going rate of 2.4 months; for burglary, 14.1 months (normally 8.8 months); and for violent disorder, 10.4 months (normally 5.3 months).
Julian Young, a solicitor in west London who has defended numerous clients on riot charges, blames "mass hysteria" for the judiciary's apparent determination to "imprison as many people as possible for as long as possible."
Another defence solicitor, Rob Brown, said courts were failing to take into account the defendant's personal circumstances ? such as the impact of custody on their future career, or their likelihood of reoffending.
Speaking at the debate, MacDonald condemned politicians for "effectively issuing demands about what the sentences should be". "We will look back on this as having been a damaging episode for the criminal justice system," he said.
Crighton believes the riot cases have highlighted a wider problem with the youth courts, which is the narrow range of sentencing options where a judge can only impose either a non-custodial referral order (often seen as a soft option) or custody (in the form of a detention and training order), with nothing in between.
Crighton stressed she intended no criticism of the judge in the case, who was acting in accordance with her powers, and acknowledged the sentence had been reduced from 24 months to 18 in recognition of the defendant's guilty plea.
Crighton is, however, concerned that the restrictions on youth court reporting mean the public is largely unaware of the sentences being imposed ? and how these compare with those for other offenders.
Another defendant who appeared before the same judge on the same day as the 17-year-old looter walked away from court after being convicted of breaking the jaw of a girl who had insulted his sister on Facebook.
Crighton recalled that when the 17-year-old was taken off to start his sentence, he was put in a prison van alongside one of Crichton's more regular customers: a member of the notorious Murder Dem Pussies gang.
She added the MDP member ? "a serious, serious offender with a book of convictions"? would be fairly typical of the people he is likely to meet in the youth offenders' institute. "I do wonder what happened to him in Feltham," she said.