The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – who was away during the disturbances last month
– has signalled his return with an uncharacteristically tough piece in today’s Guardian.
The reference to the rioters as a “feral underclass” is not language that the penal reform lobby will welcome from their favourite Minister, but it does signal a firmer line from the
“In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system, who haven’t
been changed by their past punishments."
This reference to the criminal classes is what police officers will recognise – a minority of workless families whose members are violent and disengaged and who support themselves
through the benefits system and proceeds of crime. Clarke is right to focus on this social context, but the failure of the system to deliver on “past punishments” is the real policy
agenda inside government that has been advanced by the riots.
Analysis showed that almost three-quarters of those charged for riot offences had previous convictions, proving that the majority were not opportunists but habitual offenders – many of them
older and prolific – who had not desisted from crime despite previous sanctions.
The riots have drawn attention not just to questions over policing and tactics, but the ongoing failure of court sanctions to arrest the escalation of criminal behaviour. Although overall crime is
down from the high of the mid-1990s, there has been a rise in prolific offenders who have dozens of previous convictions and who are usually not incapacitated for very long. These offenders are
responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, and every failed intervention – a community sentence not completed, a fine not paid, an ASBO ignored – leads to more offending and
Improving the performance of the police is only one part of this. Policing cannot deliver if it is undermined by inefficient courts, inadequate sentencing and lax probation supervision. The
high tempo of operations that the courts exercised after the riots demonstrates that they can operate much more efficiently. The aim now must be to normalise these processes, so that courts
work for longer, have new powers to try more cases, and deal with defendants far more quickly. An average 13 month delay for a Crown Court trial in London is hopeless.
The lax system we have at present doesn’t just fail to stop reoffending, it openly tolerates it as if each intervention is doomed and breaches only beget more breaches. The growth of community
sentences has taken place despite their poor record, and the new regime promised by Ministers will only deliver if the probation service is reformed and stops turning a blind eye to breaches.
Exemplary sentencing has a place, but a key point from our community sentences report last year was that the
evidence tells us that certainty and speed matter more than severity in sentencing. This reinforces the argument for swiftness and the need for clearly communicated conditions that are always
upheld – the probation service has the key responsibility here.
Clarke is right that the prison system must be made more purposeful, with a new focus on work in custody (as we recently argued in our report Inside Job). The aim to have the entire corrections industry working to improve rehabilitation will also help to
lower our high reoffending rates. But the prevention of crime matters more in the long-term, and this needs proven interventions at an early stage that work to prevent and where necessary
deter juvenile offenders from becoming career criminals.
The rioting revealed the nature of today’s offenders, and while it demonstrated what the system could achieve under pressure, it also showed how much further reform has to go to deliver
effective sentences and an efficient justice system that operates swiftly and transparently.
Blair Gibbs is head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange.