Why Harsh Sentencing Won’t Work

Why harsh sentencing won’t solve the problems uncovered by recent rioting across the county.

Inevitably, sentencing has recently hit the headlines. Even people who weren’t directly affected by the riots felt for those around them. As expected, there was a surge of people calling for the “hang ’em, flog ’em” approach – the stick over the carrot. It was all over Facebook and Twitter, then in newspaper opinion columns, and now (finally) the Prime Minister has waded in. Yougov reported that 53% would support the death penalty for the murder of a police officer and 65% would support it for multiple murders.

The right tells us these riots were caused by a lack of values and a lack of a stick that’s heavy enough. Values are great, but we’ve never relied on values alone. Rather, the problem lies within some people feeling they lack a stake in society worth holding on to; a carrot that’s sweet enough.

Let’s look at the problem from our point of view.

You’re at Cambridge. The economic situation aside, you think you’re probably going somewhere. Some of you aspire to be the Prime Minister or the CEO of a big multinational. Some of you aim to be the next Friedrich Hayek or Rosa Luxembourg, and many of you undoubtedly aspire to be lawyers, doctors, or teachers. And even if you don’t, you probably think: what the hell – it’ll all turn out okay, I’ll have a decent degree under my belt.

Now imagine you’re facing criminal charges. Suddenly your degree is in doubt. The flights you bought for that holiday will be wasted. Your work experience at the United States Congress isn’t going to happen. You’re going to miss graduating with all your friends. Your intimate college community will be replaced by a cell with hardened criminals who aren’t going to be quite so impressed by your 3 A*s. You have a criminal record.

The now iconic image from the riots

To you, the idea of risking your future for a night of smashing things and looting is ludicrous. Even if you don’t care about other people, even if you are entirely self-interested, rioting makes no sense. This is not snobbery. I’m saying that our situation – even when you remove a value system to which many of us subscribe – makes it impossible to comprehend the riots, let alone consider rioting ourselves. Most importantly, that would be the case whether the sentence for looting was ten hours community service, or ten years in prison. So, at least for us, we have an effective deterrent in place.

But, to some people rioting did make sense.

If you’re willing to risk going to prison for the sake of partaking in these riots, you can’t have that much to lose. And if you’ve got nothing to lose, of course your attitude would be: “why not?”. And it is this attitude we have to bear in mind when looking at sentencing. If you’ve got nothing to live for on the outside, then however long the sentence is, it won’t be an effective deterrent.¬†Along with deterrence, we also want sentencing to protect the public and to rehabilitate offenders. Retribution might feel good, but it doesn’t achieve anything.

Tougher sentences won’t aid rehabilitation either. Figures from the Ministry of Justice for 2008 state that among every 100 previous juvenile offenders (10-17 year olds), there are 113.9 offences committed.

Of course, in certain cases, we need lengthy sentences to protect citizens. There are a tiny number of psychopaths who are so mentally ill that they cannot be deterred or rehabilitated and so, unfortunately, our only choice is to lock them up for the greater good. But, this isn’t the case with rioters. We can’t expect the problem to go away by locking up more and more kids. Regardless of whether you agree that the problem is societal, it is undoubtedly systemic.

Tougher sentencing won’t work. Either as a deterrent, protective measure or as rehabilitation, it’s just pointless retribution. We can build a criminal justice system that instills values, and we should. Personal apologies and making up for crimes by cleaning up the mess they make is more likely to rehabilitate and instill values than lengthy sentences surrounded by hardened criminals. And it costs less. But values alone can’t be relied upon – there was crime back in the good, old days too.

We need to give these young people a lifestyle that’s worth aspiring to and¬†holding onto.

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