English Riots, Round 2: The Aftermath

Just after the riots, I blogged on some of the nonsense that was being tossed around about the causes and possible cures for the civil unrest. There have been new developments as those arrested by the constabulary during and after the rioting are brought to court.

In the remarks that follow, I except the assaults and murder charges, which are horrific and have not yet come to trial.

Many if not most of those accused have pleaded guilty, since the evidence is often overwhelming, involving not only testimony by the police but also CCTV recordings. When brought before magistrates, the sentences available range from a conditional discharge (“We’ll let you go if you promise not to do it again; if we catch you misbehaving, you’ll be looking at a spell in jail.”) to 6 months in prison. A good proportion of those brought before magistrates have been bound over to the Crown Courts, which have much greater powers of sentencing.

Some of the sentences already passed in the Crown Courts include:

  • A young mother of 2 who accepted a pair of looted shorts from a friend: 4 months in prison, reduced to probation and community service on appeal;
  • Two young men who made separate Facebook postings calling for riots to begin in Cheshire (not the most volatile of English areas); the only people who showed up for their riots were the police: 4 years in jail—being appealed as we speak;
  • A student who stole £4 worth of bottled water was given a 6-month sentence.

The consequences of these tough sentences include an increase of 1000 in the jail population in England and Wales. The number of people incarcerated in England and Wales has now neared 87,000, and there are fewer than 1500 places left in the entire system. There are more than 2000 accused still to be sentenced. Prison governors (=US “wardens”) are fearful that overcrowding and the prison inexperience of those who are being jailed will result in increased assaults and tension among the inmates.

The politicians have generally either publicly applauded or quietly acquiesced in the severity of the sentences being passed on those caught up in the rioting. The hang ’em and flog ’em brigade in the Conservative Party is noisily crowing that those miscreants who have been sentenced are getting exactly what they deserve and only tough sentences will do.

What is apparent is that the long sentences being passed upon those convicted of riot-related offences will mostly be appealed. The principles behind sentencing here in the United Kingdom is that the sentences should be fair, should be proportionate to the offence, should be mitigated by cooperation with the police, previous criminal history, and guilty pleas, and should be generally similar for similar crimes. The long sentences seen so far seem to fail all those four principles and, upon appeal, have a good probability of being reduced.

What to do?

If I were in the government, the first thing I would do is ensure that, for offenses that would not normally attract prison sentences, the miscreants be sentenced to community work that helped to repair the damage suffered in the unrest. Putting someone who stole 6 bottles of water in jail for 6 months will solve nothing. The offender (who had no previous criminal record) does not need rehabilitation from a life of crime. He needs to assist in building his neighbourhood back up.

Second, I’d keep quiet about the effects of government cuts on the poor. Sounds a bit harsh, no? And yet, these cuts have virtually nothing to do with the current life situations of those caught up in the unrest. The cuts have not yet taken hold or been effected. Youth this year who are going to university will pay much lower tuition fees than those who will be going next year. There is, of course, some effect on people through the publicity given to cuts in aid and rises in costs. Politicians who bemoan government cuts as the cause of the rioting are jumping on a bandwagon of lies and half-truths.

Third, I’d mobilise the goodwill that showed itself in the gangs of broom-wielding people who turned up to clean up the streets and the shops after the rioting had stopped. This kind of goodwill almost always accrues after a serious civil calamity and, yet, the government thanks people at the time and makes little or no effort to keep that goodwill around and harness it for civil good.

Fourth, I would try to think of new ways to help bring about a more equal society. This is an almost impossible task, but worth pursuing. It does not have to be from a religious or spiritual source. And it does not have to mean equality of resources and wealth across the whole society. What it does mean is that equality of opportunity must be manifest in society. Those who are more affluent need to realise that some of that affluence comes from their own opportunities afforded by society, and should be plowed back into that society, whether through taxes or through contributions to voluntary charities working toward equality.

I’m not saying that I believe that this will happen overnight, or even within my lifetime or yours. If it doesn’t happen peacefully, there is a danger that it will happen forcefully, through crime and through unrest. Perhaps that’s the only way that it will happen, and that is not desirable, on many levels.

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