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Thornhill defends magistrates' riot sentencing

30 August 2011

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, has denied claims by the Prison Governors Association (PGA) that lay magistrates were caught up in a “feeding frenzy” of disproportionate sentencing in the wake of the riots.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday at the weekend, Eoin McLennan-Murray, president of the PGA, said the courts were guilty of “naked popularism” and seemed to have “lost all sight of proportionality”.

Thornhill said that, following what he described as “mass civil disorder which threatened the very safety and stability of local communities”, more than 2,000 people had been arrested for serious offences in a very short period of time.

He said that once magistrates had imposed sentences, the way they were delivered was not their concern. In the same way he said the level of sentences was not the concern of the PGA, but was up to the judiciary.

“I am not an expert on prisons,” Thornhill said. “I can’t comment on prison conditions but if they are concerned, they must raise them.

“There was no sentencing frenzy. The sentencing guidelines must always be applied but statute allows members of the judiciary to increase the seriousness of the penalty if there are aggravating factors.

“The fact the offences were carried out in concert with so many other people increased the harm and the culpability. Many of the defendants deliberately went into town to steal and loot.”

Thornhill said that even where the property burgled was non-residential, if there was serious harm the result should be a custodial sentence.

He said the CPS had been very determined in applying for remands in custody, and had appealed against decisions where magistrates had granted bail.

“The majority of sentencing decisions were taken by the professionals, district judges in the magistrates’ courts or by judges in the Crown Courts,” he added.

It is understood that only around ten to 12 per cent of convicted rioters have received their sentences.

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