Amelia Gentleman speaks to youngsters for whom a few heady days in August have cast a long shadow
Last week, Danielle Corns was sentenced to 10 months in prison for momentarily stealing two left-footed trainers during riots in Wolverhampton. As she was sentenced, her mum Sharon began shouting at the judge from the public gallery: "You're destroying an innocent girl's life… How can you do that to somebody?" As she screamed, her daughter began to cry, and Sharon was swiftly made to leave the courtroom by security staff.
That evening, as she waited to find out which prison Danielle had been sent to, Sharon said she thought her daughter would not cope well with being in jail. "It's a damaging experience. She'll never be able to erase it from her mind. She shouldn't have to experience that. She's not a criminal. It's very unfair, the way she's been treated. It's just so wrong."
Now that we're deep into November, the heat and chaos of midsummer feels a distant memory, but for the families of young people caught up in the riots, the events of a few anarchic August days have cast long shadows.
For those who have never been in trouble with the police before, and who appear to have had only the most fleeting involvement, the severity of the treatment they have received has come as a shock. Time spent in the courtrooms, where judges are still only beginning to wade through the fallout from these events, reveals how many lives have been ruined in an instant by the simple decision to venture out, to look at what was happening in the streets. Time spent with relatives shows how one person's arrest can have devastating implications for the rest of the family.
Judges and magistrates justify the unusually stiff penalties they are still giving to those found guilty of riots-related offences by citing their right to impose stricter sentences as a deterrent. It was in this climate that two young men who set up a Facebook page encouraging a riot (which they never attended and which never actually took place) were sentenced to four years in prison, and that a young mother of two – who herself slept through the riots – was sentenced to five months for accepting a pair of shorts, looted by a friend (although she was later freed on appeal).
Immediately after the riots, the political signals were very clear. David Cameron said it was important that judges sent out a "tough message". Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge defended some of the most severe decisions, remarking, "Given the overall ghastliness of what was going on in the country, these sentences had to be significantly higher." Judges concluded that the sentences should reflect the mood of public indignation.
For people such as Danielle Corns, this has led to peculiar judgments; it's hard to see what's happening to her as anything other than a pointless waste of her time and taxpayers' money....