UK rioters not campaigners for social justice

The Guardian has published a piece on the riots that took place in the UK last month. Unsurprisingly, any notion that the rioters had led previously blameless lives until rampant social injustice provoked them to redress the balance by appropriating 48-inch plasma-screen televisions, the means for the production of which should, by right, have belonged to them in the first place, has been shown up for the drivel anyone but the most blinkered left-wing basket case always knew it to be.

On the contrary, over 70% of those before the courts on riot-related charges have prior convictions. A full 55% of youth defendants also have prior convictions. Some have questioned the seriousness of the prior convictions, arguing that one conviction for shoplifting does not a hardened crim make. This is true, but it is worth bearing in mind that offenders seldom receive a conviction the first time the police apprehend them for offences considered minor. This is especially true for youth. So, over half the young people being charged in relation to the riots had been caught by police enough times that not only did the police decide to prosecute, but the judge decided to convict, rather than to discharge without conviction. Among the 45% who didn’t have a record, one can assert with confidence that a large proportion of that group had been the subject of police attention at least once.

What I found particularly interesting, however, was the fact that magistrates have been instructed to ignore sentencing guidelines for those convicted of riot-related charges. In London, this has resulted in some unusually stiff sentences.

So far 315 people have been sentenced, of whom 176 were given an immediate jail sentence with an average length of 11.1 months.
For the magistrates this represents an imprisonment rate of 43% for riot cases compared with just 12% of cases for similar offences in 2010. In theft cases, the imprisonment rate has risen to 67% – compared with 2%.

At first glance, this uncharacteristic harshness may seem somewhat reactionary and even unjust. But it actually makes rather a lot of sense. It’s not true that criminals don’t think about the consequences before they commit a crime. If that were the case, threat of punishment would have no effect whatsoever on behaviour, and that is demonstrably not the case. Were that true, then criminals wouldn’t bother taking steps to conceal their activities. Burglaries would take place in broad daylight, while the owners were at home. Poorly-lit back allies would be no more dangerous than busy central business districts. And so on.

On the contrary, it has been demonstrated that the risk of being caught and the consequences of being caught do influence the likelihood of someone committing a crime. Like prey animals travelling in groups to reduce individuals’ risk of being eaten, riots offer opportunists the chance to indulge their base instincts with a low risk of being caught and punished. As such, it’s good policy for the justice system to increase (and be seen to increase) the risk profile with stiffer punishments for those who do get caught.

What’s not such good news, however, is that this is not being applied uniformly across cities where riots took place.

London magistrates appear to have referred more cases to crown court than other regions and kept more prisoners on remand: 58% of those passing through London courts were remanded, compared with 36% in Manchester.

The effect is even more pronounced for juveniles, with 85 of the 183 youths passing through London courts remanded in custody, compared with just two of Nottingham’s 17 youth cases and one of 14 in Manchester.

Early indications from the Guardian’s data also suggest sentencing varies between the cities.

One 17-year-old, who admitted stealing clothes and sweets from Poundland in Peckham received a 12-month sentence, six months of which will be served in detention. By contrast, a 16-year-old who admitted looting Swarovski’s jewellers in Manchester received a non-custodial sentence.

Without knowing the details of both of the cases referred to in the last paragraph, one should exercise caution in drawing conclusions from that example. Indeed, it may be that the difference can be explained by the fact that the 17-year-old is being treated as an adult, and the 16-year-old as a minor. Other differences may be explained by differences in capacity in the different centres.

If, on the other hand, it turns out that rioters risk of punishment is dependent on where in the UK they rioted, then it would be hard to argue that it was justice that was doled out as opposed to mere vengeance.

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