Christina Patterson: These tough sentences aren't going to prevent future riots

 

Share

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" of nicking a pair of trainers, 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 shamed their families, and damaged their communities, and messed up their future.

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 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.

How to make enemies and alienate people

A martian might have something to say about the international theatre festival known as the UN Assembly, where world leaders get to empty the random contents of their head, and delegates get to mime their response. Since diplomats aren't allowed to do the international sign for "pass the sick bag", they have to do other things, like storm out. Every time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks, about the West, and Israel, and, this time, the 9/11 attacks he says were launched by the US government, big chunks of the Western audience disappear. But this year, Ahmadinejad has managed to hurt the feelings of a group you couldn't really describe as Western. You could, in fact, only describe it as al-Qa'ida. In its magazine Inspire, it says that the Iranian leader's "conspiracy theories" were "ridiculous". Al-Qa'ida, it said, "succeeded in what Iran couldn't". Credit, in other words, where it's due. A rare case, perhaps, of "my enemy's enemy is my friend".

Why we Brits mustn't always grumble

It's a bit depressing that Britain has been named the worst place to live in Europe. We have less holiday, apparently, and higher food prices than most of our neighbours, and longer working hours. We also have less sunshine. A lot less sunshine. And we can't even drown our sorrows in cheap booze. But what the survey didn't take into account was what happens when the sun comes out. What happens, for example, when you've stocked up on warming winter treats, and it's suddenly hotter than Hawaii. And when everyone's hitting the barbie, and knocking back the rosé, and smiling, smiling, smiling. You can't put a price on pathetic gratitude like that.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook  

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Simon Kelner
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin