You may remember how, following last month’s riots in London and elsewhere, liberal politicians and commentators dismissed claims that the violence and looting were acts of wanton criminality as simplistic right-wing rhetoric. They insisted that the riots were, in fact, an understandable if regrettable protest by the poor and disenfranchised against the Conservative government’s austerity measures; another popular liberal theme was that the rioters were impressionable individuals who’d been driven to break the law by the bad example set by greedy bankers.
Turns out the simplistic right-wing rhetoricians were on to something: it’s emerged that more than three-quarters of the adults convicted of involvement in the riots have criminal records. The revelation that most of the rioters were at best repeat offenders and at worst career criminals, rather than the desperate poor rising up against their out-of-touch rulers, will come as no surprise to those who noted that the looters were stealing TVs, iPhones and sports shoes, rather than bread and warm clothing.
However, it doesn’t appear that the government is drawing the appropriate lessons from these figures: Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke thinks they highlight the failure of the UK’s penal system to adequately rehabilitate offenders. While that may be true for some of those involved, it’s also the case that for many criminals, their experience of the system – short prison sentences, or ‘community’ sentences in lieu of prison – isn’t sufficiently disagreeable to dissuade them from committing further crimes. It’s also highly likely that the more hardened law-breakers involved in the riots are incapable of being reformed – whether by tough sentences or by the most sympathetic of rehabilitation programmes – because they are, to use a word that’s not terribly fashionable in discussions of these issues, evil.
Tinkering with the criminal justice system won’t do much to prevent future riots. Fortunately, the government is also committed to education and welfare reforms intended to address the societal and family breakdowns that have created what Mr Clarke, in a rare moment of clarity, called the “feral underclass” responsible for most of the violence and destruction.
And let’s hear no more nonsense about spending cuts.