Shine A Light

Mass imprisonment of looters is not a solution to our problem

English courts have been open round the clock sentencing rioters and looters with jail terms. But in doing this they may only be shifting the problem of disorder from the streets to prisons.

Frances Crook
13 August 2011

Some 1,300 people have been arrested during the disorder in cities across the country, including nearly 800 in London. Courts are being kept open all night to deal with these cases.

The BBC reported that magistrates are remanding people in custody and will send them to crown courts because they claim not to have sufficient powers to deal with them. Magistrates can sentence someone to prison for up to six months and have a wide range of community sanctions available. So sending defendants up to the crown court implies that these people are likely to be sent to prison for much longer periods.

I am not going to get embroiled in political discussions about the morality or probity of the riots, disorder and looting, but I think it important to say that I doubt the efficacy of imprisoning a looter for months or years will instil in them a new found and firm civic duty and sense of community responsibility.

Apparently the police cells are full to bursting with people awaiting court appearances. The prisons in London are certainly full and so it is likely that should arrests continue, people will have to be detained in police cells and court cells for weeks or possibly months. I was in a training prison yesterday and the managers were planning to receive an influx of prisoners currently in the local prison as the whole system is creaking and needs to shift everyone along.

This means that prisons holding long term prisoners that currently provide work and training will be so clogged up with additional short sentenced prisoners that programmes will be halted. Overcrowding will take over the long term prisons. Last time that happened there were riots in prisons. So we may be shifting the problem of disorder from the streets to prisons, arguably even more dangerous and more expensive. It is ironic that an inspection report this week on Wandsworth prison condemned the prison as being unsafe and indecent, with high levels of violence and abusive staff. So do we really think that sending a first time criminal who stupidly got caught up in looting to Wandsworth is going to do any good at all? Would it not be better to sentence them to some community service so they work in their neighbourhood to repair the damage in constructive way? Everyone would benefit from that.

I was particularly disturbed by the prime minister’s comments that if children are old enough to commit the crimes they are old enough to face the punishment. The riots were not being led by children and I don’t think the children were old enough to commit the crimes. Politicians have to temper their comments and not be tempted by the lynch mob. British politicians could do well to well to follow the example of Norwegian political leaders who responded with dignity, compassion and statesmanship in the face of the most serious provocation.

Cross posted with thanks from Frances Crook's blog.

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