Choosing short sentences over community service for looters will increase reoffending

Short sentences are not effective and magistrates should concentrate on community service for many of the rioters


By Andrew Nielson, Director of Campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform

The riots, disturbances and looting that we saw convulse English cities last week have led to a predictable crackdown from the authorities. 

The courts, under political pressure to process people promptly and punitively have been sitting through the night, with bail refused for most defendants and an already creaking prison system put under unprecedented strain.

The public response has been characterised by groups calling to pull people’s benefits and housing. 

 So Nick Clegg’s measured statement yesterday was a breath of fresh air. Community payback schemes, he argued, will mean looters will do community service in riot-hit neighbourhoods and money will be provided to set up restorative justice schemes in the community.

 Only last week a 23-year-old student with no previous convictions was jailed for the maximum permitted six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50, so Clegg’s comments couldn’t have come any sooner. 

Short sentences are not effective.  People can lose their jobs, their homes, and in the case of parents, their children, and all so they can lay on a prison bunk for 22 hours a day for a few weeks. The ineffective aspect of short custodial sentences was born out by Ministry of Justice research into reoffending rates for ‘matched pairs’ of offenders given sentences for less than a year against community orders:

Do we really think that sending a first time criminal who stupidly got caught up in looting to Wandsworth is going to do any good at all?  Would it not be better to sentence them to some community service so they work in their neighbourhood to repair the damage in constructive way?

Community payback is only a limited form of restorative justice, however, and the authorities must carefully police any encounters between those who offended during the disturbances and their victims. 

We support the idea that people are confronted with the consequences of what they have done, and that they make reparation to the community, but this needs to be done in a considered way that produces favourable results for all involved.

Many people have argued that these riots demonstrate many failures: failures of policing, of government, of society. But one thing we can be sure of is that this was not a failure of sentencing policy. 

We have doubled our prison population since the mid-1990s and seen tougher and tougher measures introduced every year, with an abundance of criminal justice legislation. 

Yet despite all this, the outcome of being ‘tough on crime’ was some of the worst street disturbances seen in decades. That alone tells us that the answers to our problems do not lie within the criminal justice system.

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  • Anon E Mouse

    Typical and for once you may be right.

    The best thing the courts could do is bang these criminals up for much much longer. If they were jailed for say 5 years minimum just think how much safer our communities would be – certainly for the 5 years.

    Let’s all remember people died last week before we start the bleeding heart liberal stuff – not that this author lives anywhere the poor estates these criminals come from.

    Just to show how out of touch this pointless organisation is, 620 of those arrested last week were on parole – hardly an advert for the types of sentences you advocate but then I suppose you didn’t have to leap from a burning building with your whole life trashed…

  • Charles

    I take it it hasn’t occurred to you that re-offenders are more likely to be given stiffer sentences (i.e jail time) and since they’ve already re-offended are also more likely to carry on re-offending? In this case the dreaded phrase correlation doesn’t imply causation is actually a valid one.

  • Black Guardian

    Radical suggestion: give people the sentences they deserve for the crime they commit. The murderers get the sentence for murder, the arsonists (like Nick Clegg) get the one for arson, and the person who took a pair of shorts doesn’t get prison time because somewhere else others were killing and burning. In other words, justice.

  • Anon E Mouse

    Charles – If they hadn’t been let out on parole then they wouldn’t have been in a position to reoffend so you wouldn’t have had to use the correlation remark and less property would have been destroyed and less peoples lives ruined.

    And four less people dead and this is hardly the first case of reoffending is it? Prison works.

    If as you say they are more likely to re-offend then they certainly shouldn’t have been let out….

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  • Andy

    Anon – which is more ‘bleeding heart liberal’ stuff, allowing someone to enjoy board and lodge at many of the fine prisons across the country at the taxpayer expense, or forcing many of these people to work and contribute to cleaning up and rebuilding what they destroyed, damaged or stole from?

  • Richard

    “not that this author lives anywhere the poor estates these criminals come from.”

    Not that righteous Mickey Mouse does either.

  • Peter Wicks

    Some of the countries vilest crooks and robbers
    work in the Westminster Halls of Shame and Corruption…he who lives in glass houses should not throw stones…

  • Anon E Mouse

    Dick – I don’t advocate this authors flawed position of being soft on crime though.

    I also live in South Wales where people didn’t riot and I’m with Labour on long sentences I’m afraid.

    You may want to spend time with hand wringing bleeding heart middle class liberals but not me…

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