In the Media

Have sentencers 'got it right' on the riots? | Eric Allison

PUBLISHED September 9, 2011

Ken Clarke agrees with the tough sentencing approach, yet four out of five emerging from young offender institutions reoffend What lies behind the rioting sentencing? Of all the statistics emerging from the rush to lock up as many people involved in the recent riots as possible, by far the most depressing is the increase in the jailing of juveniles . Depending on which figure you believe, 170, say the Youth Justice Board (YJB) or 125, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) the fact remains that scores of children are now behind bars as a result of getting caught up in the August mayhem . Even more depressing was the Guardian's revelation that two thirds of those incarcerated had no previous connection with the criminal justice system, no "form", to use the jargon they will now become acquainted with. A failing system When the justice minister, Ken Clarke, said the other day that the failing penal system was partly responsible for the rioting , he was partly right. The majority of all those convicted, thus far, do have form, have been through the system. All the more absurd, then, that Clarke thought the sentencers had "got it right" in putting them back into the system that failed them previously. And nowhere does the penal system fail more spectacularly than in the young offender institutions (YOIs), where four out of five of those emerging from custody go on to reoffend (and even those obscene statistics do not tell the full tale: those 80% are the ones who get caught, something most criminals go out of their way to avoid). So the solution to this failing system ? which costs, at a minimum, three times the price of sending a child to Eton ? is to pack more young miscreants into it. What will happen to those who have been convicted? It is to be hoped the kids who are in the slammer for the first time will learn fast, for they will need to. Young offender jails are jungles, where only the strongest and sharpest survive. The newcomers will be pounced on by the old brigade; their clothes and other belongings will be subject to "taxing" by the top dogs. John Drew, from the YJB, says establishments will treat these newcomers as vulnerable prisoners (VPs). That, in itself, is fraught with danger; many prisoners automatically class VPs as "nonces" ? sex-offenders ? who deserve special treatment. No use complaining you were only a rioter when you have been "sugared up" (scalded with boiling sweetened water). Jailed street gang members carry their allegiances to custody and the strongest "crew" usually rules the roost. Newcomers with no connections will be treated as pariahs, irrespective of their offences. They will be last in the queue for food, showers and, importantly, the use of landing telephones to call friends and relatives, heightening their sense of isolation. Because of overcrowding, many of those sentenced in London will be sent to institutions, maybe hundreds of miles from home. Their accents alone will mark them out as different from local crews, further risking their safety. And they should not look to prison staff for help; complaining to a screw ranks as a serious breach of jailhouse ethics and will not be tolerated. I pity these kids and despair at the kneejerk reaction from those in authority who should ? and surely must ? know the folly of their purely punitive response to a situation created by a multitude of factors. Above all, it is a senseless retort: would you cram more patients into a hospital that failed to cure four out of five of those it treated? Youth justice UK riots Prisons and probation Crime UK criminal justice Young people Eric Allison © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds