Behind The Headlines: In favour of tough prison sentences for rioters

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THEY were the pictures that shocked a nation . . . images that illustrated a broken society and brought home to roost the grim realisation that somewhere down the line this country got it very, very wrong.

The large scale rioting which brought huge swathes of London and many other cities to a burning standstill was a damning indictment on a generation that has had it far too easy for far too long.

The out-of-control, opportunistic looting of packs of feral youths which followed summed up the attitude of those responsible.

This depressing underclass, whose moral arbiters presumably include the likes of Jeremy Kyle and Kerry Katona, saw yet another opening for them to get something for nothing.

Not for them an honest day’s work. Why bother? It’s far easier to sponge off the state and perpetuate the myth that they are owed a living.

For too long these people have been able to get away with this frankly reprehensible attitude. There is no comeback, no consequence to their actions.

They bang on about rights but shun their responsibilities. Now is the time for that to change.

If anything good can come out of these awful riots it is the fact that this is an opportunity for the Government to regain control, to teach the difference between right and wrong and to finally introduce long overdue tough prison sentences that actually act as a deterrent.

No more six-week terms in HMP Holiday Camp, out in three, reduced to two on good behaviour. This is the time when we actually see sense and punish these criminals, make them realise that their actions will not go unpunished and put them on the path to turning their lives around for the better.

As Eric Pickles, communities and local government secretary, said this week: “We need to understand that people for a while thought that this was a crime without consequence.

“We cannot have people being frightened in their beds, frightened in their own homes, for their public safety.

“That’s why these kind of exemplary sentences are necessary and I think the public would be rightly alarmed if that incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist.”

Pickles may not be everyone’s cup of tea but on this occasion he is right. The softly-softly approach that has underpinned the justice system in recent years has no place in dealing with these brainless louts.

There has to be a proper term of punishment.

But, and this is crucial to the success of the sentences, it should be viewed as an opportunity to educate these people. Don’t just lock them up for four years and forget about them, it is essential that prison officers use that time to get in their heads and change their behaviour.

Let’s see the arsonists made to meet the shopkeepers whose businesses they destroyed, to see the impact their foolish actions had on an innocent law-abiding public left so angered by the attack on their communities.

Wouldn’t it be great to capture that moment when the penny drops as a teenage hoodie actually comes to term with what he has done, takes responsibility for his actions, apologises and takes the first tentative steps on turning their life around?

Restorative justice has long been a buzz word, now is the time to see it bare its teeth and actually work.

Critics have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and slam stiff sentences for a minority of relatively small offences. Clearly, it does seem harsh when you have people of previous good character jailed for following the massed ranks of looters and grabbing a bottle of water or a scoop of ice cream but don’t let this cloud the issue.

The real debate here is over the toughest sentences for the worst crimes.

In recent years there have been countless tales of rapists and killers given pitifully low sentences. Hardened career criminals, who persist in committing robberies to feed their drug habits, are given a few more weeks inside, no treatment worthy of the name and sent on their way, ready to get back on the burglary bandwagon, the revolving door of their jail cell awaiting for the next time they’re caught.

What is the point? A few more weeks inside with your mates, three meals a day and as much PlayStation as you can fit in around your Sky+ planner, where’s the deterrent in that?

It is refreshing to see these sentences dished out to the rioters but it shouldn’t be regarded as a one-off, this should be the norm. The only reason they seem excessive to some is because for years we have been too lightweight.

It is not the case that these current sentences are too long, it’s more that the previous jail terms dished out by judges adhering to lily-livered sentencing guidelines were too short. We got it wrong for years, now is the time to start putting it right.