Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hysterical ‘toughness’ won’t solve the problems that caused the riots.

The broken glass has been swept up, the royals and politicians have posed for photographs outside the burnt out shops; the riot is receding into memory and so the knee jerk reaction can get fully under way. Over the past week or so more than twelve hundred people have passed through the courts on charges relating to the civil disturbances and 65% have ended up in custody.

As a result the Howard League for Prison Reform and a chorus of prison governors have cried out that the system cannot cope. They haven’t been listened to because their voices are simply inaudible above the massed bellowing for a ‘tough’ line to be taken with the rioters.

The concerns raised by Lord Macdonald, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, that the ‘robust’ sentences being handed down by the courts lack consistency and could in some cases result in ‘injustices’. Speaking to the BBC this week he said it was ‘difficult to see, on the facts that we know that there’s a justification for the disparity we have seen in some of the sentences we have seen handed out.’

Sentences such as the five month one handed down to a woman who received stolen goods in the shape of a pair of shorts looted during the riots and the four year term given to two young men who attempted to incite rioting in their home town by using Facebook. Common sense prevailed in the first case and the sentence was reduced to a more appropriate order to do community service, but the Facebook two are still incarcerated even though not a single person responded to their attempts to unleash hell on the local high street.

The Courts Service says that it hasn’t come under political pressure to take a hard line with people appearing before it charged with offences relating to the riots and I’m inclined to believe them. That hasn’t though stopped politicians from jumping aboard what is a very inviting band wagon. On Wednesday David Cameron praised the courts for deciding to ‘send a tough message’ to anyone contemplating further disorder on the streets.

He is also in favour of switching off Twitter and Facebook during any future disturbances and Home Secretary Theresa May thinks imposing curfews on whole neighbourhoods is the answer. Even the usually sensible Iain Duncan Smith got in on the act saying that the social problems we face mean Britain is in ‘the last chance saloon.’ He went on to say of the rioting ‘This is our warning. That wasn’t the crisis, but the crisis is coming.’

What does it matter if a lot of violent hoodies are sent to jail, isn’t it what they deserve? It is certainly what the public want to see happening. All of which is well and good, but I’m not at all sure that it is the job of either the courts or politicians to give the public what they think they want, because doing so is often a mistake.

Politicians are required to think about the consequences of their policies and in this instance they may be dire. Yes the people who took part in the riots should be punished, the ring leaders should certainly be jailed, but simply cramming everyone connected into prison is no solution, in fact it could make things much worse.

Prison should be a tough environment in which it is impossible for inmates to escape contemplating the consequences of their actions, but it should also be a place where they engage with constructive activities that will help to change their behaviour. What we risk creating is a problem similar to that in many large American jails where prison is a brutal parallel universe where the most dangerous members of society are ‘parked’ out of sight.

Most of the people trooping through the magistrates courts overt the past two weeks should receive their punishment in the community and it should have to it a strong element of rehabilitation. That, despite the howls from the hang em and flog em brigade, isn’t a soft option if the programmes used to deliver it are properly monitored and it might just achieve positive results.

There is in all this new found toughness from the Prime Minister who used to want to hug hoodies and let sunshine win the day a distinct element of playing to the gallery. Putting on an act for the party faithful who have never really warmed to him ahead of solving the problems of the country he was elected to lead.

What we need isn’t a cynical attempt to tie the moral and social malaise of our country to a single disenfranchised class who can then be demonised because they mostly don’t vote. What we need is a political leader with a vision that extends beyond treating reducing the deficit within a single parliament as if it is a national triumph of Agincourt type proportions.

A politician capable of taking on vested interests in the City, our tough PM tends to turn to jelly whenever it is suggested he takes on the bankers over tax and bonuses; enough of a genuine modernizer to recognise that our political system will continue to disenfranchise whole communities because the way we elect our representatives is flawed and unfair; and courageous enough to use a British New Deal to create jobs and encourage investment by fixing our crumbling infrastructure.

David Cameron isn’t that man, neither is Ed Milliband or Nick Clegg, all three are a product of their time, middle managers obsessed with statistics and their own status and bereft of any kind of vision. Only a man or woman capable of challenging the status quo by the methods described above can really hope to address the problems we face. All the rest is just the posturing of little boys pretending to be ‘tough’ because they are really scared out of their wits.

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