The disproportionate sentences that have been given to the rioters are making a mockery of the justice system and inflaming the sense of injustice felt by so many young people.

There is no arguing that looting and rioting should be punished, however making examples of those involved by giving overly lengthy sentences is neither effective, fair nor affordable.

To hand out custodial sentences to young people and adults who accepted a pair of shorts or stole bottled water simply does not help to repair the badly damaged communities. Why can’t we make use of all these young people and teach them about what they have done wrong, and allow them to make things right and restore their connection to their community.

How will prison or juvenile detention affect the future of young people? In an already difficult employment environment, a criminal record or a spell behind bars on your CV will make it more likely that these kids become the long-term unemployed.

The emphasis here should not be on punishment but on restoring communities and addressing the deep-rooted problems from which the riots have come. While the government shuts down youth centres and cuts funding for community groups and youth charities, there is little support for young people. With youth unemployment reaching one million, the morale among 16-25 year olds is very low. Waiting for my turn at the Job Centre last week, I was just one of the many young people sitting sheepishly in front of a benefits advisor. We were not there because we are lazy, but because in today’s fragile economy it is incredibly hard to get paid work as a young person. The situation is both worrying and frustrating as many feel they are missing out on developing the skills needed to start a career.

How does the sentencing of rioters compare to the sentencing of bankers or corrupt MPs for theft which on a monetary scale was far larger than the value of a pair or trainers and more widely damaging than a broken shop window? Those committing large-scale fraud very rarely get custodial sentences and are treated much more favourably in relation to their crimes. This indicates a strong bias towards rich professionals and against the young and the poor.

Such a flare-up of social unrest has no doubt been smouldering beneath the surface for some time; the death of Mark Duggan was just the spark that lit the tinderbox. The unrest, however, is likely to be a symptom of on-going problems which appear to stem largely from widespread inequalities. Such inequalities, whether generational, racial, regional or financial, are felt consciously and sub-consciously by many young people. Inequalities should not manifest in claiming a right to trainers or flatscreen TVs, but these material goods symbolise exactly what young people feel they are missing out on. Our society glamorises a culture of excessive materialism and consumption which most of us cannot afford to be a part of.

The lack of opportunities and government support limits the choices available to young people and gives us a very bleak outlook on the future. I have spoken about this to people on both ends of the political spectrum. While many are angry about the rioting and scared of the tension they brought about, many agree that these young people feel they have no future and that their behaviour showed that they felt they had nothing to lose.

The criminal justice system in England and Wales must champion human rights, as well as being a symbol of fair and just legal procedure. Without these things, how can our generation gain faith in a justice system which sentences young people in a way that is completely out of proportion with the sentencing guidelines? Why is petty theft being given a custodial sentence which is 10 times higher than before the riots? How will this rehabilitate young first-time offenders and keep them out of trouble, once in the criminal justice system? Figures show that nearly 50% of those convicted re-offend once released, clearly demonstrating that custodial sentences are not an effective way of preventing crime. The way to deal with young people who have misbehaved is surely not to introduce them to people who are dangerous and have committed serious offences. This is not to say that looting and criminal damage should not be punished, however sentencing should be in proportion to their crimes, regardless of the government’s reaction and policies. The judiciary should not be swayed by political considerations. It must be independent and sentence the rioters according to the standards and sentencing guidelines appropriate for their crimes and ages.

 

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