16 months is exactly what MP Jim Devine got for committing over £8,000 of expenses fraud in 2008-09 (after the expenses scandal was front page news) and then lying about it in court. He served a quarter of his sentence. MP David Chaytor got 18 months for a £22,000 fraud, and served less than a third of it.
Looting a plasma screen telly and only fessing up when you're caught is fine, just pay the cost of it and we'll say no more. If you're an expense-fiddling MP, that is. If you're an urban youth, that'll be several years in jail.
The majority of those charged in the aftermath of the riots have been held on remand which, as with Jonnie Marbles, is a way of jailing people no matter what they're sentenced to. One man is sat in jail today awaiting sentence for stealing an ice cream. No violence, no suggestion of property damage, just taking an ice cream.
You don't even need to steal anything. Ursula Nevin slept through the riots but next day was wearing a pair of shorts looted by her flatmate. She just got five months in jail, away from her two young children.
As Andrew Bowman says in the excellent Manchester Mule,
In 2006, the Home Office’s Sentencing Advisory Panel issued advice that shoplifters – the most common criminal in the UK – should never be sent to jail unless involved in violent attacks on staff, using children to steal, or working in organized gangs. It is clear that many of those now facing hefty jail sentences were none of the above.
Meanwhile, people are four years for drunkenly suggesting on Facebook - with a 'lol' at the end - a riot that didn't take place.
For the cost of sending two young men to jail for four years for setting up a Facebook event that didn't cause a riot, you could employ four youth workers for four years working with up to 200 of the most alienated young people per year (800 young people in 4 years). Or pay for a full time youth advice service in eight large secondary schools (benefitting around 10,000 young people) for a year. Or you could employ 24 young people on £15,000 for a year at a time when youth unemployment has reached over 20%.
Beyond the jail terms, families of those convicted of riot-related offences face collective punishment as councils threaten to evict them. Sounds far fetched? It's already happening.
We have indeed "descended into a form of collective madness" over the rioting. Laurie Penny, as is her habit, nails it.
Freedom of speech and equality before the law aren't there just to be indulged when everything is quiet, and tossed aside as soon as teenagers start ransacking Evans Cycles. It is at moments of national crisis that human rights are most important, because it is at such moments that these rights tend to be called into question, although rarely with such bombast as by the British politicians and commentators who openly called for the Human Rights Act to be rescinded in the wake of last week's riots.
It is barely six months since David Cameron was condemning Hosni Mubarak for human rights abuses against Egyptian protesters that included shutting down the internet. This week, the Prime Minister was congratulated by China for proposing eerily similar measures in last Thursday's emergency House of Commons debate. "The US and Britain used to criticise developing countries for curbing freedom of speech," commented Chinese state media website Global Times. "Britain's new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the internet."
When China approves of your digital rights strategy, you know you're heading in a dangerous direction.