How do you punish a rioter?

Well, go on, what do you do? I write as someone who has been burgled and assaulted in the past, and who has lived in several of the areas recently affected by violence, though don’t claim to advocate anyone’s ideas but my own – which are open for discussion.

It depends upon who is rioting. Early cases suggest that while we like to think that the looters and rioters are all jobless, going-nowhere teenagers, plenty of suspects have been brought in who conspicuously do not fit that description. A 31-year-old teacher. Students. A graphic designer. In other words, people who should know better, and have something to lose, and there is a way of hitting them where it hurts.

But how you punish people with, apparently, nothing to lose, is a problem. There are three options: fines, prison, or community service.

Fines are a non-starter. Where does the money come from? Benefits (unlikely to cover any but the puniest of fines) or, more likely, criminality. So let’s ditch that one now, fines will ultimately be paid by someone other than the criminal. Likewise, cutting benefits to those who have been convicted has been proposed, and is tempting, but will only add to the problems. The outcome will not be a newly motivated phalanx of Apprentice-style go-getters. It will inevitably be a newly motivated criminal.

Prison is attractive. David Cameron has said that he backs custodial sentences for those found guilty. Mind you, Mr Cameron has also said that this situation is ‘criminality pure and simple.’ Yes, but the criminality is happening as part of a bigger picture. It isn’t as though hundreds of people all happened upon the idea of turning over their local shoe shop at the same time. There is a reason why these people are acting in concert. We should try to divine that reason, though from what I’ve seen, anyone who tries to do so is hectored into saying ‘it’s not an excuse,’ as if an excuse and and explanation are the same thing. ‘It’s not an excuse’ is now so wearisome a cliché, you have to question the motive behind trotting it out. Maybe some people don’t want to know, which I a pity because I really do.

The drawback to prison is that it is expensive, and while it might keep society safe from someone for the duration of their sentence, the prison environment isn’t likely to be that different from the home life of some of the convicts. Sitting indoors watching tv for hours on end… With meals provided, a roof over your head and in the company of like-minded people, it doesn’t sound like much of a punishment to me, or anyone who has to work hard to pay for such things of their own. As it may well release a far more dangerous person onto the streets afterwards, prison looks like an even worse deal than ever. If you seriously think that prison will reform these people, your imagination is better than mine by orders of magnitude.

Community service is seen as a soft option. But surely there is something rather neat about getting people who have thoughtlessly trashed one community being set to work cleaning up someone else’s thoughtlessness? You can’t make someone care for their community, but you can demonstrate that actions have consequences. Isn’t that a lesson better learned at whatever age than not at all?

Watching the Newsnight discussion on the riots, I was struck by the backdrop: the bright orange flames of a burning building. While this was a cheery splash of colour in the otherwise dour navy and steel of the studio, I did think that perhaps a rolling series of mugshots might send out a different message. If the bulk of visual images coming out of London had been of stupid-looking teenagers being rounded up and thrown in police vans, rather than the exciting anonymous pyrotechnics, would the violence have spread to other cities?

Justice should be seen to be done. I honestly cannot see the use of hiding these criminals away from the public, at the public’s expense, as they drift even further from acceptable modes of behaviour. I believe we should be bringing them into the fold, because the alternative doesn’t seem like a very good one.

Trying to find a reason why this happened, without becoming the undignified slanging match Michael Gove and Harriet Harman enjoyed on Newsnight, is not finding excuses. It is a serious and important question, before we sleepwalk into the next riot. If I sound like a woolly liberal, try to do the maths, and I think my proposal will win on cost at least.

Though it’s tempting to sling the book at these people, it’s worth thinking of the outcome we want to achieve. Today’s teenager is one day going to be 35, 45, 55… And if we don’t find some answers, will still be costing us dearly – both in money, and peace of mind.

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One thought on “How do you punish a rioter?

  1. I thought very much the same thing about this. People in power don’t really empathise, do they? They think that somehow these “punishments” are either workable or much different than the normal lives of the disadvantaged poor. Prison is effectively a school that turns petty criminals into more serious criminals, fines are unpayable, giving criminal records to the already disadvantaged will hardly improve matters, and community service appears to be ineffective. First of all, one has to give people better options, if one wants them to avoid the worse ones.

    On a related subject, i.e. related to inequality, I was pleased today to hear, with reference to the banking sector, that the media finally admitted that we like in a “gambling economy” characterised by a “casino culture” with regard to share owning and investment. Not to mention an economy financed entirely by arbitrary debt calculations involving more-or-less imaginary money. The myth is that capitalism as practiced by the Victorians is the founding stone of our democratic society that we have nurtured and cherished. The real changes in the economy reveal the myth of the never-changing capitalist success story for what it is. I’m not opposed to a more sensible variety of capitalism, albeit suitably regulated – unlike the modern variety. But it is really this economic model of unfettered speculative investment as some kind of spurious good that underlies the huge inequalities in economic and educational terms. It’s ludicrous that most people can’t afford houses, for example, yet when prices fall it is seen as a *bad* thing. They need to fall a lot more! Society then wonders, when the poor are so radically underprivileged, why so many commit crime! Just because one doesn’t condone criminality during riots doesn’t mean that one can’t admit the only too clear economic (and hence social) reasons behind it, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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