Swift justice and stiff sentences were called for after the riots as the politicians fell over themselves to be “tough” on crime.
Well it appears that is just what we have. Courts have been sitting through the night to deal with the hundreds of people arrested and an unprecedented number remanded in custody either as a sentence or awaiting trial.
All was looking like just what Mr Cameron ordered until a rather peculiar thing happened – newspapers started reporting that sentences were too harsh and inconsistent. Remarkable because usually the complaint over the past 30 years has been that sentences were too lenient rather than too harsh.
A new political debate is now on the cards and whispers of “divisions” within the coalition are muted by such places as the Guardian and elsewhere.
I now find myself in a rather peculiar position, having been accused of being a “bleeding heart liberal” in the past.
I watched an interesting debate a few nights ago in which Michael Howard (yes the former Tory leader who lurched to the right in a cynical attempt to pick up votes and who proclaimed “prison works”) defended the sentencing being laid down by the courts for those perpetrating the riots and looting.
Others broadly described as “on the left”, “liberal thinkers” or those campaigning for “human rights” and “prison reform” have argued that many of these sentences are too harsh and inconsistent. Not only that, but it has been argued that the appeals procedure will bring the justice system into disrepute and cost the tax payer more money.
As written in a previous post What are the causes of the riots?: An impossible question but one we have to ask I am sympathetic to and insist upon finding the causes behind why there is a section in society who seem to not feel they belong to society or their own community and have a set of values many of us simply do not understand.
However, I along with many others have been so shocked and sickened by the rioting and looting that went on as also discussed in Armageddon Days – Britain’s Riots that the call for tough sentencing did not just come from the usual suspects on the right of our political system.
Seeing violence and looting on a mass scale without any immediate causal link like “the cuts”, “political demonstration”, or “poverty” – but rather naked wanton violence and thievery on an opportunistic mass scale regardless of the harm it caused to their own neighbours, community or wider society was shocking.
45 people lost their homes and 4 people died in the riots, and be it for a lot of luck, more would have died as the haunting pictures of the Polish lady jumping from a first floor window to escape the flames shows.
Not only were large businesses affected, but small businesses where a small interruption to their activities will send them to the wall and thus people losing their jobs. There is also the much unreported events of looters breaking into peoples homes in places like Ealing while people were in their homes and breaking into restaurants where guests where locked into basements while the staff fought off looters and rioters.
These people took part in riots without thought for their victims or society at large, because they thought they could get away with it and even if they did get caught they had nothing to fear.
Talking to Police – it appears that there is so much evidence they have obtained, from blood samples, finger prints and cctv evidence that they will still be making arrests in 2 years time. The culprits did not take hardly any precautions because they never thought they would be caught.
Then there are those who committed “minor” offences of receiving stolen goods. However, anyone who “received” stolen goods during or immediately after the riots when “picking up a TV set off the street” or “buying stuff in the pub off someone he didn’t know”, must have been living on the planet Venus not to know where these items had come from.
Michael Howard said famously that “prison works” – he was partly wrong. Prison breeds criminals and starts a vicious circle of crime and institutionalisation. However, we have to have as a society an ultimate sanction. In our society we no longer thrash people, or throw tomatoes at people in stocks or thankfully hang people – so for us prison is the ultimate punishment. Prison works to keep those dangerous off the streets.
It seems obvious to me that if you take part in the worst rioting seen in this country for a hundred years; where it was wanton greed and violence; where 4 people died and 45 people lost their homes, then a prison sentence is likely to be the appropriate outcome for good number. Indeed, to put rioters and looters back on the streets immediately could be seen as asking for trouble.
I do not accept the argument that people appealing their sentence brings the system into disrepute. It is inevitable that there will be SOME inconsistency in the system as magistrates and judges are after all human (shock horror).
It is very easy to cite a few cases where sentences are disproportional or inconsistent when over a thousand people have been sentenced in a short period of time. That is why we have an appeals procedure and that is how the law works.
I find myself, in the peculiar position of agreeing with Michael Howard, (if I believed in God I may well ask for forgiveness at this time!). Prison sentences in many cases will be appropriate and the context of the riots should be taken into account.
The public appear to agree with this as seen in a recent YouGov polls showing that OF THOSE SURVEYED 81% either agree with the sentencing or think they are too lenient. However, as with all surveys we should be guarded. It is also easy to follow the mob in justice as in rioting. During the riots it is worth noting that 33% were polled as believing the Police should use LIVE AMMUNITION on the rioters. Yet another shocking statistic in the saga.
The question for the politicians now is what they do about the numbers game. Their prison policy is in tatters as the prisons are now about to be full to bursting point as Newsnight have reported that those convicted of knife crime are being housed in a Premier Inn Hotel rather than a prison!
They will surely be preparing a U-Turn for the Justice Secretary soon enough. It may well be time for a rather more searching debate on the role of our justice system in future. A balance between punishment and rehabilitation without policy led by the need to save money.
On this occasion I would have to say the “bleeding heart liberals” have got it sadly wrong.