Everyone agrees that the rioters must be punished; but what will be the best ways to serve justice – for victims, for our communities and for perpetrators? I was delighted to see today reported in the Guardian the news that the government will be initiating a community based “riot payback scheme”, though it remains to be seen how comprehensive or well thought out this will be.
In the past days we have moved from mob rioting to mob vengeance with calls from almost all parts of society for the most vigorous and punitive use of prison as appropriate punishment for the rioters. I vehemently oppose this on ethical and practical grounds while at the same time understanding the emotional response of fear and desire for revenge that it comes from.
This is the time to implement a massive programme of community based restorative justice.
This will not be a soft option for convicted rioters and will force them to repeatedly face the consequences of their actions, to face the individuals and community they abused and to make amends. It will not only provide the most likely means of rehabilitating the individuals but also would play a vital role in the even more important task of rebuilding of our communities and re-establishing the moral basis for our country. While there will be violent offenders for whom this would not be appropriate, they will likely be a minority.
In amongst the hysteria of the past days there have been obscene examples of court decisions the like of which ought to bring deep shame to anyone who believes in the rule of law and justice. To put on remand a mentally ill man for stealing cake or a 17year old for stealing M&M’s is repugnant and without precedent in modern times in the UK. Vast numbers of people bemoan the crisis in morals and the culture of avoiding responsibility – the remedy is not to abandon our moral compass in the dispensation of justice. It will take courage and leadership to stand up to the mob and I am deeply concerned that moral leadership on this issue is not coming from the 3rd sector at large or the public sector.
Aside from anything, under British Law a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. As such, someone accused of a very minor offence ought not to have their liberty restricted unless they pose a clear threat to public order or until after they have been convicted of an offence that warrants it. Satisfying public calls for vengeance is not reason to give up on the central tenants and practice of our legal system that is admired across the world and provides one of the core foundations of our society.
From a practical point of view, as Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League recently wrote in an excellent blog: “I doubt the efficacy of imprisoning a looter for months or years will instil in them a new found and firm civic duty and sense of community responsibility… 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. Everyone would benefit from that.”
Further, prisons are over capacity already and are incredibly expensive on the state and there is scant evidence that they work, in fact on the contrary. Reoffending rates are disgracefully high and as the saying goes: “prison is an expensive way of making a bad person worse”.
The fact that some of the rioters have already been through the criminal justice system and spent time in prison, itself shows the ineffectiveness of the prison system to moderate and change behaviour. We must do something different.
So what might restorative justice look like?
- Training of community members to facilitate and manage restorative justice in their community
- Work with victims to support them to be able to listen to the people who committed crimes against them
- Work with convicted rioters to have them appreciate the gravity of the crime they committed and appreciate the consequence of their actions
- Facilitated dialogue between victim and perpetrator where the victim is able to express their feelings and experience and the perpetrator is able to appologise
- Creative thinking on how reparation can be made.
- Design and implementation of restorative work by the perpetrator
- Community meetings where community members can address the perpetrators in a controlled manner
- Community activity by perpetrators to improve the local area
This approach would bring something positive out of the ashes of the riots.
- It would allow for victims to speak directly to perpetrators
- It would predictably be more likely to result in rehabilitation of offenders
- It would leave a legacy of community facilitators of restorative justice
- It would be in itself a process of community healing
- It would enable us as a country to hold our head high in how we have dealt with the consequences of the riots – putting our principals into practice
- It will also be the most cost effective means of distributing justice which is not irrelevant in this economic climate
We must learn from the extraordinary compassion and humanity of people such as Mr Jahan (and Ashraf Rossli), and take the hard road of peace and reconciliation not the easy low road of retribution. If Mr Jahan can do this in the face of an unimaginably devastating experience, then so can we all – and shame on us if we do not do so.
This would truly be the application of justice: for victims, for our communities and for the perpetrators. With this in mind, I also urge magistrates and judges to follow the guidelines set out for both decisions on whether to place accused on remand and for subsequent sentencing.
In the words of Martin Luther King:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
So, what do we stand for in terms of justice, both collectively and individually? It is time we decided and then acted accordingly.