Behind The Headlines: Against tough prison sentences for rioters

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BEING bracketed in the “against” camp on the post-riots sentencing debate will undoubtedly incense a certain section of our readership who see anything less than jail as nothing more than a “lily-livered” approach to punishment.

I was as shocked as anyone to see the scenes unfolding on our screens last week across London, Birmingham and Manchester. But it was the sight of looting that really appalled millions of other people across the country. The tidal wave of brazen opportunistic thieving was truly staggering with seemingly nobody spared, from corner shops selling cigarettes to High Street giants packed with laptops, mobile phones and brand name sportswear.

Sensing the outrage, the Prime Minister scuttled back – arguably 24 hours late – to take control of the situation and promised tough sentences for those guilty of taking part. The law-abiding majority in the country nodded in approval.

Within hours, suspects were being rounded up and herded into courts that were sitting all night in some cases to process the sheer volume of people charged. Still the country nodded with approval.

But genuine concerns have begun to surface in recent days at some of the sentences being handed down by the courts.

Personally, I am in favour of throwing the book at those found guilty of the very worst charges. The person who, for example, set fire to the 140-year-old furniture store in Croydon or started the blaze in Tottenham that left so many people without a roof over the heads or a possession to their name.

But five months for the woman who slept through the riots, but helped herself to a pair of shorts stolen in the looting? Or 16 months for the hapless drunk who helped himself to Krispy Kreme donuts? Or the 25-year-old who stole £25 of Oil of Olay, banged up for two years. The list of “stiff sentences” is endless and, in truth, could fill the rest of the column.

The pro-lobby might like that.

But is this the right response? Can it be right that a first-time offender is thrown into jail for months or years for a moment of madness when he or she joined in a riot or, as has been well-documented, incited a riot through an instant messaging service or Facebook but didn’t actually show up?

There has to be some consistency in sentencing. But in Britain today we now have swathes of young first-time offenders being jailed when, actually, a far better solution would be for them to make amends by first apologising to the people whose livelihoods they wrecked and then spending time putting their own community right by doing (lengthy) periods of community service.

What possible benefit can there be in filling up our prisons with people who, if convicted in a pre-riots London of simple shoplifting, would have received a fine and a spot of community service?

Prison should be a punishment of last resort. Three-quarters of first time offenders commit further crimes within a year of release. Simple exposure to a period of incarceration – in many cases lengthy incarceration – are unlikely to make model citizens on release.

Our jails are at breaking point, never mind the fact the Government plans to close more of them down. Hardened prisoners are being shipped out of jails in London to prisons elsewhere to make way for the new intake of bug-eyed rioters while the rehabilitation aspect of custody will be severely hindered too.

And while the moral majority clamours for tough sentencing and Conservative ministers are wheeled out at every turn to do just that, what about asking, firstly, about the cost of jailing all these people and, secondly, to raise concerns about the independence of our own judiciary. This, in particular, looks – if you examine the sentencing handed down to defendants – as though it has reacted to a political desire for a strong response rather than one influenced by a desire for more restorative justice in which victims, offenders and the community as a whole play a part to improve each other’s lot.

Only yesterday a sample study of magistrates sentencing of people involved in the riots revealed 70 per cent were going to prison compared with two per cent in a normal magistrates sitting.

The riots were deeply troubling and undoubtedly exposed a rotten underbelly in certain sections of the community in our major cities. But it’s really very questionable indeed whether the “lock ’em up and throw away the key approach” advocated by the blue side of the Coalition Government is the best one. It’s unsettling and insidious and I don’t believe for a minute it will achieve much except cost us financially and, more importantly, cost us a society.