Lord Macdonald, who led the prosecution service in England and Wales for five years, warned that the courts risked being swept up in a "collective loss of proportion", passing jail terms that lack "humanity or justice".
Meanwhile his fellow Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, the barrister who was until this year the government's independent adviser on terrorism strategy, warned against ministerial interference in the judicial process, arguing that "just filling up prisons" would not prevent future problems.
David Cameron, who last week promised severe punishments for rioters, saying he hoped courts would use "exemplary" sentences to deter future riots, praised the sentencing decisions, which have included two jailed for four years each for inciting riots on Facebook – riots that never took place – and one person sent to prison for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water.
Is it just to punish someone more harshly because the crime they committed took place in the context of an alarming collective disorder? It depends on whether the crime was itself aimed at taking advantage of an existing social disorder. Those that rob people who are fleeing from a natural disaster, knowing there is not likely to be much help for them, or who burglarize their vacated houses, arguably deserve more severe punishment. But in the case of the riots the crimes are themselves, in aggregate, what makes the disaster. Indeed, once we acknowledge the collective aspect of riots, there is an argument that participants are less culpable for their crimes since they are giving into a much observed tendency to follow the example of others. Instead, this appears to violate one of our central values about criminal punishment, that people face punishments proportionate to the their desert and uniformly with equally culpable individuals. Instead we have the price of crimes moving like equity prices to reflect gyrations in public anxiety.
Nor is it clear that tough sentences for rioters is good social control for the increasingly tight resources of the UK and the US. As Lord Carlisle suggested in the passage quoted above, there is no reason at this point in our history to view expanded incarceration as a good way to bolster social control. England has more than twice the incarceration rate it had in the mid-1990s, a period of few if any riots. Some no doubt believe that future rioters will heed the harsh lesson being taught their cousins. No doubt Charlie Gilmore, university student (and son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmore) who was given a 16 month prison sentence for participating in some disorderly events during the student fee demonstrations last December (read Stephen Bates' reporting in the Guardian) is unlikely to offend in that way again. That may be true for some of the individuals being punished now as well, although we will never know whether far more lenient but still undesired sentences would accomplish. But it is not clear it is true for the next Charlie Gilmore or young riot looter.