Wednesday, 24 August 2011

London riots – UK cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

The Government maintains that the riots, which spread through London and other cities two weeks ago,  “were not about poverty” – just mindless thugery.  But analysis of court-case data by the Guardian shows that most of the rioters were young, poor and unemployed.

A Liverpool University urban planning lecturer analyzed the Guardian’s data and found that the majority of the 1,300 people who have appeared in court so far live in poor neighbourhoods, with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. 

The findings are backed up the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which looked at the relationship between different indicators of poverty and deprivation and the boroughs where violence and looting took place.

Researchers found that in almost all of the worst-affected areas, youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average while education attainment was significantly lower.

The report states: "While poverty is no excuse for criminality, it places additional pressure on families not only to make ends meet but also to spend time together … The political debate is likely to rage on for some time but there is also an urgent need to understand what is happening in communities where violence flared."

The country cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

But so far, all we have seen from the Government is a very punitive response.  Convicted rioters are being handed sentences that are on the average 25 per cent longer than normal ones – an average of 5 months for those charged with theft and handling stolen goods.  A mother of two was jailed for five months for receiving clothes stolen by a looter (she appealed) and kids posting messages inciting disorders of Facebook were handed a four-year sentence.  Have judges lost their minds?  

The Government instructed them to go hard on the rioters to set an example and deter further violence, and also because looting and similar offences are seen as more serious in the context of the riots.  This last argument is strange, considering that is it well known that people in groups do things they would never have done on their own.

I am not condoning the riots and I agree that rioters need to be punished, but these harsh, longer sentences will backfire. They will send hundreds of youngsters to already overcrowded prisons, where they’ll meet hardened criminals.  They will reinforce their views of a society that is unjust, biased, uncaring and punitive, and exacerbate heir feelings of alienation and resentment. 

Instead of handing them long prison sentences, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the young people to clean up, repair and improve the neighborhoods they have trashed? 

And as a society, we need to address the causes of the riots; otherwise they will flare up again. 

 Ian Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, is advocating just that.  Taking an opposite view from the “zero tolerance” of No 10, he declared that the country cannot just "arrest its way" out of the social breakdown.

Young people needed support to help them leave gangs in equal measure to the tough sanctions they should face if they refuse to give up a life of crime, he said in an article for the Guardian.

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