Last summer major cities in the UK saw serious urban unrest for the first time in a generation. The underlying causes, reasons for the rapid escalation and reaction of public services to the unrest have been the subject of several studies, notably Reading the Riots and the Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel, whose work continues.
The evidence that emerged has already established a clear link between deprivation and rioting, a fact acknowledged by the Independent Riots Panel in their interim report.
The precise relationship between disadvantage and factors such as disillusionment with the state, anger towards the police and an increased sense of material injustice remains inconclusive and will be the subject of research and debate for years to come.
What can be productively discussed now is the failure of the responsible bodies to acknowledge the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of those involved when bringing them before court and passing down sentence. This went hand in hand with a failure to appreciate that punishment alone would further deepen the distrust and conflict in communities.
The Ministry of Justice released updated statistics of those arrested for involvement in the riots in October 2011. Of those brought before court, 64% lived in one of the 20% most deprived areas of the country and 46% were in the 10% lowest-income areas). Only 3% lived in the 20% least-deprived areas. The riots occurred predominantly in areas ranked in worst 10% for crime. More than half the riots were in areas of highest vulnerability for long-term employment.
Other factors also reveal high deprivation or vulnerability. Of the under-eighteens, two-thirds had special educational needs and more than a third had been excluded from school during the previous year (compared to 6 % of all year 11 pupils). Almost a third were persistent absentees (a rate four times higher than their peers). In brief, those involved in the riots were far more likely to come from deprived and disadvantaged areas, live in poverty, have special educational needs and have poor engagement in school.
This was a situation in which both victims and perpetrators could have benefited from restorative justice. Instead the decision was taken to show a firm fist and hand down severe sentences. The opportunity was lost to promote reparation, allow for positive dialogue about the offences and garner better trust and satisfaction between offenders and victims. Earlier government commitments to seek restorative resolutions where appropriate were left in the shadows.
In fact, as was confirmed in some appeals, the sentences handed down were only just within the boundaries of the law. Ministry of Justice statistics showed that those arrested for offences committed during the riots were six times more likely to be remanded in custody, three and a half times more likely to receive a custodial sentence (42% compared to 12% in England and Wales in 2010) and on average received sentences three times longer (12.5 months average as opposed to 3.7) than individuals arrested in 2010 for similar offences.
Harsh sentences and what some would consider unfair prison sentences will almost certainly exacerbate the existing economic and educational disadvantage that those convicted for involvement in the riots already suffer. Sending them to prison at a time in their lives when they are only just entering adulthood and full independence (75% of those convicted were under the age of 25), will inevitably have long-lasting consequences in terms of their education and later life opportunities. Many are certain to re-offend. All the evidence points to a far greater likelihood of unemployment than among the general public. Those who enter prison with particular educational needs are unlikely to have them met.
In addition, longer sentences are unlikely to prove to be a huge deterrent in preventing future offending or rioting. Evidence, most notably the Halliday Review of 2001 on sentencing in England and Wales, reveals that increasing sentence length has minimal deterrent effect, a fact acknowledged by the current Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke. The riots would have been an appropriate occasion to adopt a bolder, more forward-thinking restorative justice approach, a process to which the Government had already expressed a firm commitment.
Restorative justice is about bringing those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling all affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.
A restorative justice approach would have provided an opportunity to heal community wounds. Offenders who undergo this process are obliged to confront the reality of the harm they have done, to apologise to victims, and to attempt to make amends. They have to take responsibility for the solution. Such a process can break down barriers between groups and contribute to a process of re-integration.
One positive attribute of restorative justice is its flexibility. It can be particularly effective with complicated and sensitive issues, as revealed in a study of its application in Northern Ireland by the Prison Reform Trust. The riots needed a similar response, something that could provide a delicate approach to the tensions within communities and the deep vulnerabilities of those involved. There would have been the added advantage that the process could have provided further insight into the causes and rapid spread of the riots.
Ministry of Justice reports and evaluations of such schemes reveal higher satisfaction among victims who have taken part in restorative conferencing. In one study, 85% of victims said they were very or quite satisfied with the conferencing, and almost 80% would recommend it to others. Another study for the Ministry of Justice (from Joanna Shapland and others) found that it helped achieve a sense of closure, and alleviated post-traumatic stress symptoms for victims of serious crime. The same series of research studies found that 27% fewer offences were committed by offenders who had been through the conferencing model of restorative justice compared to those who had not. A further study, by The Smith Institute, claimed a 25 per cent reduction in recidivism among violent offenders after participation in restorative justice processes.
In the post-riot climate of opinion the debate tended to concentrate on “soft versus hard” sentencing. But this is too simple. An offender who committed a minor offence, such as minor disorder or shoplifting, could have taken from the process a much more positive and better outcome than would be achieved by merely handing down a custodial sentence. There were cases where custody would have been appropriate but that need not have excluded an attempt to put in place a restorative element at an early stage.
The Independent Riots Panel interim report recommended that “central and local government and the police should ensure all victims who want to face people who committed crimes against them can have the opportunity do so”. However, despite calls from London Mayor Boris Johnsonand Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg, the first restorative conference following the riots was not held until the end of November. It proved a success in terms of victim satisfaction.
A survey carried out on behalf of the Prison Reform Trust reveals that the public is in favour of “restorative” type alternatives to custody. More than 90% polled wanted those involved in the riots to fix the damage they caused and to face victims, rather than go to prison; 88% thought victims of theft and vandalism should be given the chance to let offenders know of the harm and distress they have caused. Dealing with the riot in a punitive manner not only ignored the vulnerability and disadvantage of those involved, it was out of step with the views of the public. And an opportunity to rebuild damaged communities was lost.