PM Defends Jail Terms For Facebook Posts

David Cameron has defended the courts' decision to send a "tough message" over the riots, despite growing Liberal Democrat unease.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, both received four-year jail terms for inciting disorder on Facebook - the toughest sentence yet since riots broke out in English cities.

The decision has divided politicians and threatened to expose coalition tensions over how best to deal with offenders.

Reacting to the decision, the Prime Minister said: "You weren't in court, I wasn't in court, it's up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing.

"They've decided to send a tough message and it's very good the courts feel able to do that," he added.

But Blackshaw's family said they were "shocked and upset" over the sentence.

His lawyer Chris Johnson added that there would be an appeal.

Most Conservative MPs have broadly welcomed the robust response despite growing feelings among many Liberal Democrats that the sentences are disproportionate and inconsistent.

Four-year jail terms are usually handed down for offences such as grievous bodily harm.

There are rumblings that this robust justice is the result of political pressure.

One Lib Dem source said: "We're uneasy about the sentencing and equally uneasy about politicians imposing on the criminal justice system."

Compare this to the message coming from the Tories - MP Douglas Carswell said the swift and harsh response suggested the courts "are getting their act together".

"Imagine if our criminal justice system worked like this all the time?"

Mr Cameron has been clear he wants those involved in the riots to go to jail and Home Secretary Theresa May suggested juvenile offenders be stripped of their anonymity.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told Sky News the prison sentences for Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan were justified.

"The place where you live, the place where you shop, the streets where your children play, should feel safe," he said.

"What these two did and what the rioters did was to make people frightened in their homes.

"That kind of public breakdown which did appear for a few moments in Britain - that this was a crime without consequence - I think it is necessary to have such a harsh sentence."

But Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told Sky News he hoped courts would show "relative leniency" when it comes to first-time offenders.

Lib Dem MP Tom Brake has said the response should be about "restorative justice".

He told Sky News the Facebook sentences "may be appropriate" but several people have gone to jail for "petty crimes" such as stealing bottled water.

"The Ministry of Justice's own evidence is short-term sentences are very ineffective at reducing reoffending" compared to community sentences," he added.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has put far more emphasis on community service and the need for offenders to make amends by doing good works in the areas they damaged and looted than Mr Cameron.

Labour MP Paul Flynn said the sentences were a sign of "wild panic" rather than leadership and feared guidelines had been "thrown away".

"How can this make sense? How does it compare with other crimes? What will it do to prison numbers?" he asked on his blog.

"This is not Government. It's a series of wild panic measures seeking to claw back popularity."

Nearly two-thirds of riot-related offenders have so far been remanded in custody after appearing in court - the rate last year was closer to 10%.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan both received jail sentences for writing Facebook posts in areas that did not subsequently see riots.

Cheshire Police discovered a Facebook event entitled "Smash Down Northwich Town" created by Blackshaw, who is from Marston near Northwich.

It clearly stated who it was created by and gave a time and place for the "Mob Hill Massive Northwich Lootin'" to meet "behind maccies" - believed to mean the local McDonalds.

Blackshaw posted the first comment, saying: "WE'LL NEED TO GET ON THIS KICKIN OFF ALL OVER."

Sutcliffe-Keenan, from Warrington, also set up a Facebook page encouraging disorder called "Warrington Riots" with a date and time.

This spate of jail sentences comes just months after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke set out plans to reduce the prison population.

Any review of this seems highly unlikely in light of the financial constraints the Ministry of Justice budget is under as the Treasury has consistently said the spending settlements ministers received cannot be rolled back.

Politicians have made their views clear because of the specific circumstances of the riots and the political pressure to be seen to punish those involved.

But that is also exactly what has prompted criticism from others, who say one of the fundamental principles of the legal system is that it must be consistent.