Comment: We must think beyond kneejerk riot punishments

Roger Graef OBE is a filmmaker and criminologist.
Roger Graef OBE is a filmmaker and criminologist.

We should pause for thought before calling for heavy judicial action against rioters. There is a better solution.

By Roger Graef

In the wake of the riots, invocations abound to do something. Solutions – almost all punishments - range from water cannon and baton rounds, to evictions for rioters, and fines for bad parenting – with outrage attached. Although some contributions are more thoughtful, there is more heat than light, as usual in debates about criminal justice.

Ordinary people who have suffered – or fear they might suffer – at the hands of rioting mobs have much more direct experience of system failure. Many watched in horror as rioters stormed around the streets either with police standing by, or with no police in sight. Millions of others watched these scenes repeated endlessly on our screens. It did not inspire confidence in the system.


Not surprisingly, the notion of self-defence inspired some to stand their ground – with fatal consequences for three Asian boys in Birmingham.

The PM recently backed the right of self-defence for home and shop owners and promised no prosecutions would follow. Given the failure of the police on the first three nights, talk of vigilantism is back on the agenda. Although courts take a tougher line on people who leave the site they are protecting and get weapons, or others to help chase the attackers, this may change in the light of the dismal spectacles we've all seen. Moreover, for those involved, their demand for some kind of satisfaction is most unlikely to be any more satisfied by the justice system than it is by the police.

As court punishments are doled out – some as brief as one day inside, with time served if they were held overnight – we will again hear the familiar lament that court sentences are too soft. The local temptation to mete out summary rough justice against teens in their area will be strong for those still hurting for months and years to come.

But if the goal of all this – shared across the political spectrum – is to get feckless and greedy young people to take more responsibility for the actions, is tougher punishment the best way to achieve that?

Of the various predictors of future offending for young children under ten at risk, harsh and erratic parenting is almost top of the list. The strongest predictor of future offending is having an older sibling or parent convicted of a crime before the child is ten.

So if convicting these young people will not only blight what little future they have with a criminal record – especially at a time of growing unemployment - it will also increase the chances of their younger brothers and sisters going into crime. This should all give us pause before calling for heavier judicial action.

Moreover, casting them out of council flats, as many have already been expelled from school, simply disgorges them onto the streets and even further from reach for anyone trying to help them mend their ways. As for prison, a Conservative white paper once famously called it "a university of crime... an expensive way to make bad people worse". Do we really want impulse looters to become muggers, and muggers to learn how to do heavier crimes?

There is a form of justice which many of them take seriously – and are far more frightened of than courts, community service or even prison: restorative justice, in which offenders are confronted by their victim, or victims of similar crimes, and learn of the impact of their actions.

With family members often present, the shame achieves far more penetration of the cold carapace so many young offenders wear to enure themselves against the justice system. It also allows victims to express their feelings in ways rarely welcome in court sessions only focused on what happened and who did it, rather than why, and how did it feel? They are often cathartic for both parties.

I have witnessed and filmed a wide range of encounters: from criminal damage of a motorbike – that ended with the owner giving the lad who'd damaged it a ride around the building – to a convicted murderer meeting the mother of his victim. Some months later, that led to the two of them giving joint lectures in Texas prisons about the dangers of guns and drugs. After ten years inside, as part of his life sentence, it was the first time he'd thought of the damage he'd done to her and the family of the victim. For the mother, it gave some meaning to what had been a ruined life since her daughter's killing.

It won't be easy to arrange, but I urge MPs, police and courts to try to think beyond knee jerk calls for punishment, and see how many of the rioters can be brought to meet their victims to hear about the damage they and the others have caused. Their family members should be present too. They should also be sentenced to cleaning up the damage – as could be agreed in the victim-offender mediation.

That is a way forward that involves taking responsibility, and ensuring it does not happen again. It also addresses the emotional damage in ways insurance can never do. The Cree in Northern Canada call it 'closing the circle broken by crime.' The damaged victims and their community deserve nothing less.

Roger Graef OBE is a filmmaker and criminologist. He is the author of Why Restorative Justice? He is visiting professor at the Mannheim Centre of Criminology at the LSE. He is also an advisor to the Sentencing Council but writes in a personal capacity.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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