Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The sadistic state

The supererogatory nature of many of these sentences, related - often very distantly related - to the riots, is eye-catching.  Here we have a 22 year old woman locked up for six months for intention to steal.  Here a couple of young man, 20 and 22, are locked up for four years for allegedly inciting riotous conduct on their Facebook pages, even though not a single incident could be said to have resulted from their behaviour.  Here a 17 year old boy is given community service, a curfew and banned from social media sites for a joke on Facebook.  These are in addition to the recent cases of a mother of two in Manchester being jailed for receiving looted shorts, a young man getting six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water, and another young man who will probably go to jail for stealing two scoops of ice cream.  There will be more, no doubt.  The logic of such harsh sentencing is disclosed in the homilies of judges:

Sitting at Manchester Crown Court, sentencing Judge Andrew Gilbart QC said: "I have no doubt at all that the principal purpose is that the courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation.
"For those reasons I consider that the sentencing guidelines for specific offences are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from." [Emphasis added]

This isn't just one magistrate's view.  It's being rolled out across the country:

Camberwell magistrate Novello Noades let slip that courts were ordered to send all rioters and looters to jail.
Court clerk Claire Luxford said “guidance” had gone out “saying that when sentencing guidelines were written no one envisaged events like these—and therefore they do not apply”.
This has meant harsh sentences for crimes normally considered minor.

Judges throwing aside the guidelines and handing people ridiculously punitive sentences for petty or non-offences is a recipe for appeals.  There will at the very least be plenty of work for defence lawyers.  But that's not the point.  Sentencing is only the logical terminus of a process that is off the leash.  Think of the police who made the initial arrests, and pressed charges.  Think of the prosecutor's office who approved the charges.  Think of the police who charged two young men for organising a water fight in Colchester using their Blackberries, and then let the media know that they were doing this.  The criminal justice system is engaged in a demonstration of the state's ability to control the territory, because that very ability is just what has recently been in doubt.  The moral and ideological pedagogy behind this disciplining and consumption of bodies teaches us that the party of order is in control, because its claim to rule hinges considerably on its ability to rule.  This is, of course, the hallmark of a very brittle social order.