Op-Ed: UK Rioters — Cells Are Not The Answer

Posted Aug 19, 2011 by Anthony Organ
Those currently being convicted of rioting in the UK are receiving abnormally long prison sentences. Is there a better alternative?
Riot police on Walworth Road  Elephant and Castle  London
Riot police on Walworth Road, Elephant and Castle, London
Photo by Hozinja
Following the recent nationwide riots there have been numerous reports on the varied but mostly harsh sentences which suspects have received. These include a student sentenced to six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water and two men sentenced to four years each for writing Facebook messages which failed to directly lead to any rioting. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice have emerged today detailing how rioters being convicted in magistrates’ courts are receiving on average a 25% longer sentence than the average custodial sentence for these crimes received in 2010. When asked about the Facebook case, David Cameron defended the decision saying that “it's very good that courts are able to do that”. Whilst few would argue that a message must be sent to rioters that criminal behaviour will not be tolerated in our society, to many it is clear that out of proportion prison sentences are not the answer.
Firstly, with each prisoner costing over £40,000 of taxpayer’s money per year to maintain the longer sentences are clearly not in the financial interest of a nation already struggling to cut costs. Secondly, it has also emerged today that the prison population for England and Wales has hit a new record high, with only 1,439 spare usable spaces in the jail system. Prison chiefs remain confident that they will be able to find enough space for everyone sentenced but as the prisons get more overcrowded the chance that those convicted will emerge as better people decreases. Harry Fletcher, of the probation officers’ union Napo, has noted that the chance for work, education or rehabilitation will be “zero” as space runs out. This is besides the fact that if space does run out police station cells may need to be used temporarily at an even greater cost to the tax-payer. And thirdly, these sentences are likely to be an embarrassment for the government. We are already witnessing more rifts appearing within the coalition between Tories and the Lib-Dems but these tough sentences have another chance to backfire. Already convicted rioters are appealing their sentences and winning their freedom, such as a woman who received five months for handling goods looted by her lodger. It is almost certain that the majority of convictions will be appealed and many sentences will either be reduced or abolished, thus embarrassing those in the government who are currently more vocal in their support of the tough sentences.
Surely a better alternative would be a productive one in which those convicted can give something back to those they took from. Community service en-masse would be a cheap and effective way of dealing with this issue. All those convicted would be taken back to the very places they destroyed and would be forced to work alongside those whose businesses they ruined to fix some of what they have done. Aside from possibly being the first experience of work for many, they would be exposed to the human damage their actions have caused. During the chaos many rioters would only have seen buildings and desirable products without considering that people depend on the business for an income, so putting them face-to-face with shopkeepers may make at least some of them realise what they have done. They could talk to people who have spent their lives working for something undone in a moment and begin to appreciate the amount of effort it takes for some people to struggle through life. Either way, the human element of the damage will do more to rehabilitate these criminals than a cell.