Swift justice on rioters may not be the best long-term solution

(c) Still Burning

Georgia Lewis

Inevitably, there is plenty of talk in Britain as to what we have learnt since the riots and what can be done to stop this ever happening again. Some people, like Pauline Pearce, are making sense, others, like David Starkey and EDL Twitter accounts, are making unhelpful and divisive comments about race that oversimplify a complex situation.

Yet in the midst of the chatter on radio, online and in miles of newspaper column inches, not much has been said about what will happen once those sentenced to prison terms are in jail. Who cares, some may ask. It is easy to dismiss everyone involved as a useless fool who will never amount to anything. 

The sausage factory process which has seen judges working round the clock to sentence offenders has resulted in glaring inconsistencies with punishments – some sentences seem too harsh, others might not seem harsh enough. Swift justice, meted out by tired judges, might satisfy the community’s baying for blood but it is important to think about the long-term future.

This judicial equivalent of Speed Dating has certainly filled up Britain’s already overstretched prisons. But is there any rehabilitation going on in there? Surely this is an excellent time to properly examine the role of prisons.

I am reminded of my Year 12 Legal Studies course when I was studying for the Australian equivalent of A-levels. We were taught that the three aims of criminal punishment are retribution, protection of the community and rehabilitation. All three aims are important but will any of the young offenders come out of jail having learnt any new skills that will help the on the outside, especially for those who are unemployed? Will there be any counselling? Will anyone find out about their individual situations and offer guidance as to how life can be different, more productive and more fulfilling when they are released?

What about those who have been given community service orders? Will the activities related to these orders actually relate to the crimes committed? Will they give the offenders a chance to make a difference to the communities they have damaged?

Making sure criminal punishment is rehabilitative as well as retributive is not about lefty heart-bleeding. It is about making sure something good can come of the riots. Offenders need to be taught a lesson and understand what they did wrong. But, especially given the young age of most of these people, they also need the chance to restart their lives and to be responsible citizens. It may sound idealistic, but aiming for a society where such scenes never happen again is an ideal to which we can all aspire.

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