Using Facebook to incite London riots: Is a 4-year sentence too harsh?

Two Facebook users in their 20s used the network to promote debauchery as if it were a social event — and they're paying a surprisingly steep price

Police arrest suspects associated with last week's London riots
(Image credit: WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Swept up in the London riots last week, 20-year-old Jordan Blackman created a Facebook event advertising "massive Northwich lootin'" at a specific date, time, and location. Nobody showed up. A tipsy Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, posted a similar message, but removed his post from Facebook the next day. Even though their Facebook activity provoked no actual crimes or riots, both men were arrested and have just been handed four-year jail sentences for using the social-media site to "organize and orchestrate" disorder. That's the harshest penalty yet in the post-riot aftermath, part of the "tough message" British Prime Minister David Cameron says he wants to send his country. Too tough in this case?

Things are getting out of hand…again: "Toughness is fine," says William Underhill at The Daily Beast. "But only when tempered with good sense." The sentencing of Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan follows other instances of overkill: A 23-year-old sentenced to six months in jail for thieving a $6 water bottle, and five months for a mother caught wearing a pair of shorts her flatmate had stolen. There's a "rising danger of wild inconsistency" when courts do away with sentencing guidelines. Certainly, the "crazy crackdown" won't go down well with angry Brits.

"London riots: Britain's crazy crackdown on young protesters"

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And this may not even be a deterrent: A four-year sentence in England typically accompanies a conviction for kidnapping, killing somebody while drunk driving, or sexual assault, says Alan Travis at The Guardian. In 2005, a rioter charged with "violent disorder" received only three years — and unlike these two cases, his riot actually happened. Worse, the overly severe sentence may not actually deter other people from doing the same thing. "There is real doubt about whether many potential criminals know the 'going rate' for any particular crime — let alone whether they are deterred by it."

"England riots: Will harsher sentences act as a deterrent?"

Actually, the punishment fits the crime: The sentences are not disproportionate, says Janet Daley at The Telegraph. "If ever there was a time to bypass the usual rules of proportionality in the criminal justice system, this is it." The four-year sentences are in line with a message that is "simply imperative" as the country reels from the riots: "This must never happen again." If harsher-than-usual punishments is the method of ensuring that's the case, then "it would be irresponsible" to do anything less.

"Riot sentences are not 'disproportionate'"

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