London (CNN) — In the midst of the looting in north London, I saw a young man being arrested for attempting to steal a TV from a shopping mall.
The plate glass windows had been smashed in and the steel shutters pried open. Police arrived to catch the man red-handed with a flat screen TV in his arms.
But no sooner had they slapped some handcuffs on him, they got word of another looting. They rushed off sirens blazing — no time to cordon off the crime scene. It was just one of hundreds of incidents on Sunday August 7.
I saw plenty of looting over the next few days but that was the only time I saw someone getting caught in the act.
In the midst of the riots, many looters took advantage of the chaos.
But police pored over security camera videos and then a concerted social media campaign helped identify suspected looters, and many of them are now due in court or awaiting sentences.
So far, police have arrested more than 1,700 suspects. About 1,000 of those have been charged. Of those convicted some are receiving what seem to be tough sentences.
Take Anderson Fernandes. He faces possible jail time for stealing two scoops of ice cream during a Manchester riot. There are other cases involving petty theft like stealing a bottle of water, a cake and chewing gum.
Judges are dealing with a tremendous range of crimes and are working overtime to mete out punishment, from everything from murder to arson to theft.
The riots have cost the country dearly. Five people were killed. Others lost their homes and businesses at an estimated cost of hundreds of millions dollars.
Politicians and the public have demanded tough sentences.
And that may explain what seem to be particularly harsh sentences for Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenen. They each got four years in prison for using Facebook to incite a riot, or rather failing to incite a riot.
Both invited their Facebook friends to join in the looting with a “smash down” at an appointed place and time. No one showed up, however, except for police who promptly arrested them.
But that sentence has prompted a backlash from critics.
Sophie Willett, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told CNN: “I think we must expect that participation in the public disturbances is an aggravating factor when you come before the courts. Stealing a bottle of water in the riot environment is different to going into you local shop and stealing a bottle of water. But, in that spirit we must apply some sort of proportion to this and actually we have to look at people’s genuine, ongoing danger to the community and that is what we need to look at when we send people to prison.”
On a visit to Cheshire, northwest England, Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Wednesday that tough sentences were necessary for deterrence.
“They’ve [the courts] decided to send a tough message and it’s very good the courts feel able to do that. What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behavior. This is sending a clear message that it’s wrong and won’t be tolerated. It is what our criminal justice system should be doing.”
And it’s not just about jail time. Convicted offenders are now being threatened with eviction if they live in public housing.
Many of those charged are minors whose identities are normally legally protected. But now prosecutors have the power to “name and shame” under- 18s charged in the violence.
So, what’s the public take on crime and punishment? Using the chatter on Twitter and other social media as a barometer, the four-year sentence for inciting a riot that never happened via Facebook was a step too far. In fact, there’s now a Facebook page set up in their defense.
But many also feel that harsh punishments are necessary to let offenders know the riots were not a free-for-all without consequences.
Riots and looters trashed the pretty and normally placid suburb of Ealing, west London last week. The day after, I stood in the riot debris and an elderly woman stopped for a chat.
She lamented the state of Britain’s youth and suggested one way to deal with it. “They should bring back … execution,” she said grimly, drawing a finger across her throat.
Excessive? Definitely. But it certainly captured the zero-tolerance mood of much of the British public.