What should be done with arrested rioters?


communities, crime, justice, police, reform

Author(s):  Tess Lanning
Published date:  11 Aug 2011
Source:  IPPR

As the dust settles, the authorities will have to dig deeper than bad parenting and wanton criminality as the causes of unrest in Britain’s cities. In the meantime there’s a more immediate problem to deal with: in the space of a few days, 770 people have been arrested in the capital alone. Hundreds more are being kept in makeshift holding cells across the country after the rioting spread to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham, Leicester and Liverpool. What should be done with these people?

The answer from ministers is clear. According to education secretary Michael Gove, 'these people are criminals and they need to be caught, prosecuted and jailed'. The prime minister has today reinforced this by promising extra prison capacity if sentencing demands it and rightly urging any conviction for violence to carry a custodial sentence.

There is a strong case for identifying the worst alleged offenders and moving them quickly through the courts system, to correct any false impression either among the rioters or the wider public that they are all ‘getting away with it’. But adopting  a blanket presumption that prison is the best punishment for everyone involved will undo much of the good work that has led to the youth prison population falling. The Guardian estimates that even if half of those arrested so far are aged 18 or under, jailing them would mean a 15 per cent rise in the numbers of teenagers in UK prisons. The government’s stated intention of reducing the adult prison population through a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ has already been undermined by the political furore over their sentencing reforms, and this could finish it off – as well as leaving the Ministry of Justice budget in tatters.

Overcrowding remains a serious issue in our prisons, with a report this week condemning HMP Wandsworth for warehousing prisoners in 'demeaning' conditions. Reoffending rates are stubbornly high, with 60 per cent of those serving short-term sentences reconvicted within a year of release. Ministers have previously raised concerns about the difficulty of doing serious rehabilitative work with prisoners on short sentences: have they suddenly forgotten the risk that those caught up in the disorder of the last few days would come out of prison worse than they go in?

Recent research by IPPR shows that community sentences are both cheaper and more effective than prison. And how tough are a few weeks in prison anyway? A six-month sentence in the community with strict behavioural requirements can actually be tougher than a short detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure, where many offenders spend most of the day in their cells.

At their best, community sentences provide offenders with the opportunity to repair the damage caused by crime. Forcing rioters to clean up the damage they have caused will be visible to communities. It will teach people that there are consequences to their actions, could help by making amends to the local communities to the victims of the looting they were part of. Alongside restorative justice where offenders make amends personally to the victims of their crimes, it can help to repair community relations in a way that a short prison sentence could never achieve.

The government is keen to rebut any suggestion that the riots are more than a law and order issue. While failures in policing many have given licence to teenagers to loot and rampage through the streets, the deep disaffection in their communities poses an acute challenge to our political classes. The experience of stop and search tactics and high profile deaths in custody cast a shadow on the work done by the Met to learn from the Brixton riots and the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. More broadly, the promises of debt-fuelled growth have delivered little for the generation of young people facing a bleak job market and who this summer have found cuts to services tailored to support them. Politicians should seize these events as an opportunity to strengthen community bonds, not simply lock them up and ignore the consequences.