Christina Patterson: The evidence does not suggest jailing rioters will solve anything

 

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The Independent Online

It has been quite a week for apologies. Roman Polanski has, 34 years after raping a 13-year-old girl, finally agreed that it wasn't a great idea. Ed Balls has said that he and his former boss made a few tiny little mistakes about the economy. And a young man called Reece Davis-James has said he was sorry for nicking a stereo from the Catford branch of Argos.

He stole the stereo six weeks ago, in the mass outbreak of madness known as "the riots". He was caught by police, running away from the shop. It must be quite hard to run with a stereo, but Davis-James is pretty fit. He is, in fact, in a dance troupe called Abyss, which reached the semi-final of Britain's Got Talent. "I'm sorry, and I have learned from my mistake," he said outside the court room this week. "If I go down," he said, "it will have a huge impact on my career."

It certainly will have a "huge impact" on his career. Going to prison always has an "impact" on your career, if you're lucky enough to have such a thing before you go. Davis-James is, apparently, so keen to avoid it that he's written a lovely letter. "He very eloquently talks about the tragedy that has befallen himself and many other young people ... caught up in the heat of the moment," said the district judge who sent the case to the crown court. "After reading the letter, it may be right to consider a suspended sentence".

It's a shame that the other few hundred people facing prison sentences for stuffing chewing gum down their trousers, or grabbing bottles of water, haven't also written lovely letters. It's a shame that their public pronouncements were sometimes, like the one given by a scaffolder from Chingford, who said that he wanted to "apologise for the inconvenience", more like the kind of thing you'd hear when you were stuck on a broken train. It's a real shame that some of these people didn't come up with better accounts of why they did these stupid, stupid things, and how sorry they were for the harm they'd done, and the way they had damaged their communities, and messed up their futures.

Perhaps if they had, then nice judges would read their lovely letters, or listen to their speeches, and feel their hearts melt. Perhaps if they had, they would also be thinking that it might be right to "consider a suspended sentence", or at least that it might be right to consider not giving much tougher sentences – two or three times tougher, according to data from the Ministry of Justice – to people doing stupid things "in the heat of the moment" than to people doing stupid things that were planned.

Instead, everyone, including our Prime Minister, and most judges (and, according to a recent poll, 70 per cent of the population) seems to think it's a good idea to give people who copied other people doing stupid things tougher sentences than people who do stupid things all the time. Two young men, for example, who set up a Facebook page encouraging a riot, which no one except the police turned up for, have been sentenced to four years in jail, which is what you'd usually get for robbing a bank, or rape. A teenager who tried to steal cigarettes got two years. A young woman got five months for accepting a stolen pair of shorts.

The sentences, according to a judge called Andrew Gilbart, who issued what he called "sentencing remarks" a week after the riots, will "send out a clear and unambiguous message as to the consequences to the individual". It is, he said, "a message which I trust will deter others from engaging in this type of behaviour in the future".

It's nice, of course, that a judge can see all that crime, and still "trust". It's nice that, after what must be quite a few years of watching people go to prison, and then come out of it, and then go back again, and then again, he still thinks that a very tough sentence will stop someone who did something stupid from doing it again. You can see why, if it was your job to send people to prison, you'd want to think that the more you sent them to prison, the more likely it was that you wouldn't have to send them to prison again. But you might also think that someone whose job it was to weigh up evidence might actually weigh up the evidence. And the evidence doesn't show that tougher sentences stop people who do stupid things from doing stupid things again, and it certainly doesn't show that they stop people who do stupid things "in the heat of the moment" from doing them again "in the heat of the moment", because when you do things "in the heat of the moment" you tend to forget about everything except "the moment" and "the heat".

Four out of five young offenders go on to reoffend. If they weren't all that interested in crime before their spell in jail, they sure as hell are by the time they get out. These sentences might make judges, and voters, and politicians, feel better, but they're not going to reduce the risk of future riots. Some proper community schemes might. They might even give people who have done stupid things a chance to pay their victims back. Prison won't, and it costs three times as much as Eton. We'd better all start saving now.

i@independent.co.uk

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