The London riots a month on: The importance of restorative justice, by Aaron Thompson*
A month has now passed since devastating riots took hold of the capital; disproportionately affecting London’s most disadvantaged communities and reinforcing the image of young Londoners as “feral youth”.
The ramifications of these disturbances are still being felt as the criminal justice system continues to flex its muscles, convicting hundreds of young people involved in the spontaneous rioting. The swift sentencing of many young Londoners, however, has allowed some institutional failures to be swept under the rug. It has highlighted many inherent prejudices within the prosecution service – such as the handing out of disproportionate sentences to those involved – and has emphasised the lack of control that some of London’s authorities hold over the community.
Many of us are left wondering whether local communities, and perhaps more importantly the government and police force, can learn anything from these random acts of criminality and provide a credible solution to the socio-economic grievances which I believe are a major contributing factor to the violence. This is a major cause for concern, as the young people of London have been adversely affected by this level of disorder and have been the target of much public anger which has made headlines, not only across the country, but on a global scale.
Young people are now faced with the burden of being unfairly tarnished by these events and treated as a scapegoat for such mindless violence which, we have to bear in mind, was perpetrated by a diverse range of people from all sections of society, both young people and adults, and from a range of different ethnicities. This leads to my main point that the swift sentencing of young people has unfortunately taken the form of an ill-conceived and reactionary type of revenge, largely focusing on retributive justice aimed at throwing arbitrary prison sentences at those young offenders involved and seeking to punish young people as a whole without careful consideration.
The authorities have presumed that acting hastily will somehow act as a deterrent to further violence. It may well do in the short-term, but I believe they have failed to take into account the long-term effects of incarcerating young people, which may serve to impede future opportunities and indeed become the catalyst to an endless cycle of crime.
Studies have shown that young people who have been introduced to the prison system at an early age are more likely to go on to commit further and more serious crime once they have been released, due to the effects of institutionalisation. Surely this is the wrong way to go about correcting the behaviour of these young people and teaching them the standards of what is and is not morally acceptable in our society.
An alternative which would certainly be more effective, particularly among young offenders involved in the riots would be to seek justice through a restorative perspective, which would inevitably address the needs of the victims, offenders and indeed the community as a whole. This strategy would allow the young people involved to face up to their crimes and take responsibility for their actions by being forced to participate in a meaningful form of community service to rebuild the communities they have fractured. Allowing young people to be held accountable for their actions and to witness first-hand the devastation they have caused to the lives of others may change their outlook and give them the opportunity to make amends with the victims and affected community.
Many of the young people involved in the riots were from the most deprived communities in the country and the desire to steal material goods, such as flatscreen TVs and the latest footwear, is a clear indication that the possession of such goods are viewed as bolstering self-worth and value in this world of materialism and greed. This is the wrong message to send out to our young people, and those in power should urgently address the desperate need of the young generation to feel more enfranchised and give them a voice concerning issues which affect their own destiny, rather than half-heartedly taking on board the opinions of young people as and when it suits them for political purposes.
On a final note, the terrible violence we have witnessed in London may have initially stemmed from the murder of an alleged unarmed man in Tottenham, but the subsequent trigger of these events lies far deeper and can be interpreted as an outcry from a largely disenfranchised youth. This can only be resolved through effective mediation between young people and the authorities, and creating mutual understanding between the different generations through fostering a culture of respect. Thus, the importance of initiatives such as the 99% Campaign is even more relevant in terms of rectifying the damaging effects of negative youth stereotypes and will hopefully continue to raise awareness of the positive contribution thousands of young Londoners are making to their own communities.
*All views expressed in this article are the author’s. IARS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any views expressed in these articles and will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses or damages arising from its display or use.