Shine A Light

Eight months after the English riots: young lives blighted by punitive sentencing

The punitive judicial response to the riots has left a lasting legacy of damage and stigma

Sophie Willett
4 April 2012

Faded photographs of young faces still decorate police and train stations as a last ditch attempt to find rioters who evaded the police last August. For many, the 2011 English riots are a fading memory. For the people still serving their sentence for their part in the riots, it is something they will never forget. Who are these people? What will become of them?

The most common offences with which rioters were charged were burglary (49 per cent), violent disorder (21 per cent), theft (16 per cent), robbery (2 per cent) and criminal damage (2 per cent). Rather than fitting the sentence to reflect the severity of the crime, judges concluded that the sentences should reflect the mood of public indignation.
A college student with no criminal record was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water. A teenager was sentenced to ten months in prison for stealing two left-footed trainers during riots in Wolverhampton.
In all 2,710 people appeared before the courts for their involvement in the national disturbance. Just over a quarter of those were children and a further 26 per cent were aged 18-20. The average sentence length for everyone convicted was 17 months.

Two-fifths of the children in custody have had no previous connection with youth offending teams, and half of under-18s brought in front of the courts on charges of rioting and looting were completely unknown to the criminal justice system. These children faced an unusually difficult welcome.
First timers had to learn the vocabulary and politics of modern prisons to survive. A prison service email urged governors in England and Wales to warn prisoners against revealing too much information to other prisoners as they were concerned for the “safety of remands/offenders involved in the public disorder”.
There were reports of unrest as established prisoners resented those convicted of rioting and sought to dominate the new green entrants. Turf wars broke out on the prison estate. An incident in Cookham Wood young offenders institute left two children in hospital.
A Howard League solicitor reported: "Prisoners who were involved in the riots have been advised to walk around in pairs and to not be out in the landing on their own. Other prisoners are saying that the rioters have 'destroyed their turf' and beatings have been going on all day. It was difficult to hear on the telephone as screaming and shouting could be heard in the background."
The media gaze has long since passed and young people and their families are left alone to piece together a future for those convicted.  The cost of imprisonment to the taxpayer was extortionate, and the cost to education and career prospects is even higher.
Young people have been told they aren’t welcome back to college or school. People found eviction notices on front doors from the council. Let us not forget that in the days following the riots, a number of councils said they would be seeking to evict council tenants from their property if anyone living there was found guilty of participating in the riots.
Children and young people who behaved stupidly and were convicted for their part in the riots will have spent nine months being educated in a very expensive institution. Prison. Many will leave custody far more criminally able. Many will have picked up new skills and attitudes. Many will have made firm bonds and alliances with their new friends.
All will have drastically diminished life opportunities
The majority of employers will ask about previous convictions and four million Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks are carried out every year in England and Wales. If an employer does ask about an unspent criminal conviction a potential employee must disclose the information. If that person lies it is a criminal offence and they could be prosecuted for fraud.
There are large number of professions where convictions can never be spent and must be disclosed, including doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and police officers.
Anyone with a criminal conviction will be refused access to  health, social care and education courses. There can be difficulties in getting visas or entering certain countries for those with previous convictions. There is a duty to disclose unspent convictions in an application for a mortgage.
The punitive response may have satisfied the supposed public want initially. But the public aren’t educated in sentencing, nor are they experts in the lasting effects of prison on children and young people. The criminalisation of young people involved in the riots will have unintended devastating consequences that may haunt us by increasing the likelihood of crime.

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