Bill for tough riot sentencing runs into millions

With an average cost of £2,245 per offender for short sentences, the pressure on an already stretched prison system is becoming untenable

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The tough sentencing in the aftermath of the riots has led to outbreaks of unrest in prisons across the country, as new research for The Independent on Sunday reveals that the courts' approach to riot-related offences has piled millions of pounds on to the bill for running overcrowded prisons.

Figures show that some two-thirds of the 1,300 arrested following the disturbances were remanded in custody, at a total cost of almost £2m, according to figures provided by the Institute for Public Policy Research. The IPPR calculates the average cost of an under three-month sentence is £2,245 per offender.

On top of this, research for The Guardian showed riot sentences were on average 25 per cent longer than for the same offences last year, meaning the 30 people so far given custodial sentences for theft or handling stolen goods were sent to prison for 5.1 rather than 4.1 months.

The IPPR figures suggest the difference would add over £20,000 to the cost of jailing these prisoners. However, with the rate of imprisonment for rioting offences running at 70 per cent, compared with the 3.5 per cent of defendants remanded by magistrates in the whole of last year, the cost is expected to climb dramatically.

Concerns have also been expressed about the number of children arrested following the riots. The latest figures suggest 17 per cent of defendants facing riot-related charges in court were aged between 11 and 17 – and, in some areas, up to a third of these were in council care.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said: "We warned [the Government] about this potential, that the prison population could take off at any time, and we were ignored.

"Our prisons can't be continually overcrowded, because when they are, our officers can't do the rehabilitation work they're employed to do; it just becomes warehousing."

Pressure groups last night warned that the sudden influx of young prisoners threatened the stability of a youth-custody system that is already beyond safe capacity. It came amid footage released yesterday of hooded rioters in Birmingham firing shots at police officers and a helicopter.

While the population of adult prisons has already reached record levels, the number of inmates at young offender institutes had soared beyond recommended safe limits even before the latest crisis, it emerged last night.

The occupancy rate at the establishments reached 94 per cent last month – compared to the recommended level of 93 per cent – raising fears about overcrowding, increased tensions and officers' ability to look after the most vulnerable inmates.

Sophie Willett, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said many young people were being made more vulnerable. She said: "A lot will be first-time offenders who will be placed in prison alongside experienced offenders in a high-pressure situation.

"The overcrowding also means many of them will be far from home. Being in prisons is always difficult to handle, but particularly at this time, and many shouldn't be there at all."

Community leaders have blamed police for failing to move faster to avert a protest in Tottenham, which led to the riot that triggered four consecutive nights of violence in cities across England.

It came amid evidence that police were told "in no uncertain terms" of the simmering anger after the death of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old Tottenham man shot dead by officers, according to minutes from an emergency meeting held hours before the first rioting erupted there.

Despite this, community leaders' concerns about the lack of credible information about the shooting and the intensity of local sentiment were not passed to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), for nearly eight hours – after the first riot was already under way.

Yesterday the Reverend Nims Obunge, pastor at the Freedom's Ark Church in Tottenham, who was at the meeting, told The IoS: "It was made very, very clear that something must be done urgently. That was the trigger-point where we could have addressed their concerns. I think it might even have averted the march. If that [eight hours later] was the first time the IPCC heard, then it was a massive communication breakdown. Making a phone call doesn't take that long."

The circumstances that led to the beginning of the riots will form a key part of the Leveson inquiry.

Word on the street: Today's youth are disenchanted and angry – but far from nihilistic

They have been branded the self-serving generation, whose actions over three nights of rioting and looting that started in Tottenham, north London, outraged the nation while the world watched in horror. The violence, and that which followed elsewhere, prompted David Cameron to declare an "all-out war" on gang culture, which he blamed for the outbreak, insisting that Britain's so-called "broken society was back at the top" of his agenda.

But contrary to the violent image of young people, a new film shows that Britain's youth are anything but nihilistic. Instead they are angry that their concerns are not being heard.

Here are six young voices from north London. Their accounts, published exclusively in The IoS, are part of a new documentary, Riot from Wrong, directed by Hornsey-based film-maker Teddy Nygh and made by Fully Focused Community. It was shot and produced entirely by young people.

Kunal Dutta

The homestayer

Sandjena Barnes, 20, is from Enfield and grew up in Tottenham. She is preparing to go to university next month

"I didn't go out. I've always been a home person anyway and my mother would never have allowed me. The media are painting a very ugly picture of young people at the moment. I think for some people their voice is not being heard. The student demonstration showed that people came out in their thousands, and tuition fees still rose. In terms of looting, people took the opportunity. Some saw it as enjoyable, others saw it as a way to get free stuff they couldn't afford. The Government is totally out of touch with people other than the rich."

The rioter

Name undisclosed, 16, from Haringey, admits he was personally involved in the Tottenham riots

"The day itself was like a war zone. I did it because I had to try and make something out of nothing. If you have a job that gives you things to do during the day, it keeps you off the streets, but all those jobs are going to foreigners. People were just going into shops and taking whatever they can. The anger was so visible and you could see everyone charging directly for whatever they could. The community want justice, but their views are not being heard.

"When you look at the death [of Mark Duggan] you realise that. At first the police tried to lie about it and then their story changed. There are no options. You try to get a job, you keep on trying and getting the same answer."

The mother

Katie Anne is a 21-year-old mother who lives in north London

"Ever since the [Mark Duggan] shooting, the atmosphere here has changed. The day itself was extremely emotional. Mark was slightly older than me but was well known among young people in the community. I heard about the protest outside the police station and went down there. No one had any intention of causing violence, but when I arrived it was a cold atmosphere.

"The police should have been more sympathetic, but they seem to have an attitude. There was no senior police officer to counsel them and I was shown mobile phone footage of a policeman assaulting a girl.

"Everyone is angry with the Government. The cuts of educational maintenance allowance and youth clubs have left young people with nothing to do. Discipline starts from home, and parents are scared to discipline their children. Teachers are scared to discipline children.

"We don't have any connection with the people controlling our lives. It's only now that they are coming to see us."

The disillusioned voter

Tino Girandola, 21, lives with his parents in Enfield

After working in a warehouse he is now an editor and worked on Riots from Wrong.

"Enfield and London are multicultural. I grew up with all races so it doesn't make a difference. The English Defence League commentary was gibberish. People weren't there to chase particular races. It wasn't racist, there were a mixture of people there.

"They thought that they were not going to get caught – I would love to get a new 50in TV for free – but there's a line and I had something to lose, it would ruin my life. Many people had nothing to lose.

"Under Labour there wasn't really as much breaking of promises. All David Cameron's government cares about are themselves. They are not looking out for those who are broke. They promise everything and then they break their word.

"As soon as I went to a warehouse I realised that time is going to be short. I started signing on, and then I got this job – totally what I'm looking for, what they're doing is involving young people. The youth have just had enough, but it could happen again."

The concerned teenager

Jake Whyte, 19, is from Tufnell Park

"Some of the young people were just going out for the cheap thrill. The kids are doing this because we have nothing. When youth clubs are taken away, we can't socialise with each other and that's why you get postcode wars. You're living so close to each other but the youth are unable to unite and help each other. The closures stop us from communicating and talking.

"Like Mark Duggan, I'm a mixed-race child, and the way I'm seeing it feels like they are provoking a race war.

"The looting was wrong. But sometimes the situation is desperate and people might reach for trainers because they're struggling. I haven't seen the highest person in Scotland Yard come out and say sorry about Mark Duggan. David Cameron is trying to restore order but he needs to understand why this happened. Notting Hill Carnival is coming up, and I don't know what's going to happen. I think it should be cancelled or moved this year."

The peacemaker

Alex Simpson, 21, lives with his grandmother in Peckham

"Young people have been ignored for far too long, and this has given us a voice. The robbing happened because many of them were not getting stopped. They saw police standing back. They were doing wrong, but they were not being stopped.

"I was against the attacks on local shops, because these are just small businesses that are part of the wider community. But the attacks on big chains like Tesco and JD Sports is different – these are taking out of the community and not giving back. Beyond an item of branding, the community gets nothing from these shops."