Saturday, August 13, 2011

The London Riots: Is Revenge a Good Idea?

Is evicting convicted rioters from council housing and revoking their benefits really a good idea?


There’s talk of stripping benefits from anyone found guilty of the looting and rioting in England last week.  Given that most of the feckless individuals were too busy stealing Sony TVs and designer jeans to even care about larger societal matters, few of us probably have any initial objections to this suggestion.

It’s not quite as easy as that though.

From the photos that have been circulated, a lot of these thugs weren’t even teenagers at all.  If they’re older and on benefits, they might well have dependent children.  What happens to them?  These kids aren’t exactly born with a silver spoon in their mouths as it is.  Should the sins of their fathers be visited on them?  If you’re of a mind that the kids shouldn’t be punished for their fathers’ crimes, it means they the government has to find another way of supporting them.  That, in turn, means a whole new layer of bureaucracy to fund.

Plus, think about it, removing benefits, especially in the form of housing, will simply result in hundreds more homeless people on the streets. While they won’t then be living off taxpayer money, it’s not exactly the result England needs is it?

Removing benefits is a knee jerk reaction to a horrific recent event, but in its simplest form, that’s probably not the answer. 


Oddly enough, I am taking the liberal view precisely because I am not a liberal.

Simply put: turfing these people out and taking away their benefits sounds satisfying, but it is revenge pure and simple.  And revenge is never a good idea.

It is also totally unnecessary: there are laws on the books (and have been for hundreds of years) to handle assault, vandalism, robbery and murder—use them!  On the numerous “Cops With Camera” shows , we see criminals captured after:
  • smashing shop windows
  • looting stores
  • assaulting people
  • leading police on wild, destructive and dangerous car cases

but, as the program wraps up, we find that they were given a two-week suspended sentence and 2 point on their license.  (This is the sort of thing that makes me start shouting at the telly.)  Why weren’t these people locked up?

I’ll tell you why (soapbox level 3): the same hand-wringing do-gooders who are now whining about “disenfranchised youth” and our “broken society” are the same people who have been—for the last twenty years—systematically stripping police of their powers and blocking courts from handing out just punishments.

So why did these people destroy property, loot stores and assault passersby?  Because they have been taught that it is acceptable behaviour.  They have been doing it for years and have never received anything more than a slap on the wrist, so why would they hesitate to join in?  (/soapbox level 3)

And taking their housing away?  No surprise that this was the first revenge tactic the MP’s thought up; after all, when they were caught looting the public, the punishment they suffered was having to pay for their second homes themselves.  So being revealed as a common thief relates—in their minds—to having your housing benefits taken away, and it’s too bad that they are unable to think any further ahead than that, because when they start throwing innocent people onto the streets along with the guilty, I am afraid the politicians, and the people hounding them for revenge, are going to be the ones looking like the villains.


  1. I'll stand with Mike on the soapbox, save one thing: it isn't that they have been taught such behavior is acceptable, it is because they haven't been taught, or given a reason, that it is not acceptable.
    As for the housing issue, Britain is already past the point where things will get worse before they get better. Kicking them out of housing isn't pure revenge. There is an element of that, true. But it is also to function as a deterrent and incentive to turn people in. At this point, when law enforcement has been so lax, the consequences have to be severe in order to have any effect. Momma might police her kids better if she's worried about losing her roof. Furthermore, the police can't be everywhere and will have to depend on others close to the thugs to turn them in. The idea is, I assume, that if you take away a few houses, then the parents and siblings at least will be sufficiently threatened that they will turn the lawless in in a hope to save their home. It is a crappy position? Yes. Is it in some ways counterproductive as Toni notes? Yes. Is incarnation of the actual looters better? Yes, but it depends on being able to ID and catch them. As mentioned, that might be better accomplished if momma is scared enough to turn a kid in. As my friend posted the other day, some of the mommas were discussing what their children should bring home, i.e. they need some convincing that it is in their best interest to go to the police.
    Short answer: there are no good solutions. All the answers are harsh. But not taking the hard positions will make things worse, far worse. If government doesn't get control, the vigilantes will come, with all their prejudices, grievances, and vengeance. Then Britain will be a war zone.

  2. You know, one of my first thoughts about this whole mess was to revoke benefits. After all, are they going to literally pay the people who are destroying property? But I think you're right about the long-term consequences.

    I especially agree with Mike--there are other things we can do. If every looter and rioter were forced to clean up the very stores and homes that they had destroyed, personally apologize to the injured parties, and spend the next few years paying damages through hard labor (food and housing provided for them), it would be a much healthier solution and probably have a better effect on their future behavior.

  3. As we've now discussed in-depth in our cross-post comments ;) it might feel good straight away, but it just doesn't make sense long-term - for many reasons!! x

  4. I was trying to think what they would do in the USA and I can't. In the first instance, things would never have gone as far as they did - water canons and rubber bullets would have been deployed almost immediately.
    And because there aren't as many CCTVs, there would have been no hope of catching as many of them in the aftermath.

  5. Removing benefits and evicting families, let's call it what it is - collective punishment. Let's enact something that would put us at odds with the UN. It's not as if we don't have a perfectly good legal systemn in which to try those individuals who have rioted - individuals being the operative word.

  6. @Expatmum, but CCTV's aren't very effective when the rioters wear masks--and the police aren't allowed to make them take them off until night 4. And even when not covering face, the cops will have to rely on others to ID the rioter unless they have a previous record and are in the facial recon database.
    @Discombubulated, that "perfectly good legal system" is partially at fault for inconsistent and lenient judgments past. And it sounds like the current judgments aren't impressing a shattered public confidence, so much so that it occurs to me that your comment might be sarcastic.

  7. I think they should be threatened with jail (to scare them senseless) and then made to do community service to clean up the mess they made.

  8. @AHLondon. And it occurs to me that with your comment you might be being deliberately obtuse. It is for the courts to give appropriate sentence using English common law after a free and fair trial. Magistrates' courts have been sitting through the night hearing the cases of those arrested. All those up in front of the JPs have been refused bail and kept in custody to await crown court trials, that's definitely consistent and certainly not lenient by the standards of English magistrates' courts. What there is absolutely no place for is opportunistic politicians on both sides of the House trying to enact Sippenhaft.

  9. I seem to have posted under two different names, Culturally Discombobulated and awindram. They're both me, just wanted to clarify if that confused anyone or appeared sock puppet-ish.

  10. I don't think that we should be taking benefit's away from those involved. In most cases the law in the UK is adequately providing punishment to fit the crime, based on the sentencing guidelines available to judges. This should be the deterrent for those involved, many of whom are first time offenders.

    As a defence lawyer in London the scenes at the Magistrates Courts are unprecidented, particularly the number of people refused bail and committed to the Crown Court so that more serious sentencing options are available. Given the large number of people who have been arrested there appears to have been good work carried out by the police and the community at large. Additional punishments would solve nothing and create further social issues.

    I agree with the comments that the police should have been able to use more force at an earlier stage but considering the boundaries set by the government they have done a pretty good job in apprehending many of those involved. It is those boundaries that need to be addressed. Once again the show of pure numbers of police in London a couple of days after the first riots seemed to have the desired effect and rioters stayed away.

    On a separate note it is interesting to see how outraged the country and politicians have been in what is to a greater extent crimes against property. What about those more serious crimes particularly gang related murder, knife crime, organised criminal gangs trafficking people, drugs and firearms. These occur on a daily basis in our cities. Property can be replaced the victims of these offences may not be replaced or even repaired.

  11. I think it's a knee jerk reaction typical of the Cameron government. It simply isn't realistic to punish a whole family based on the crimes of one member - not everyone can control their teenage sons, as even MPs have found out in the past. It's a bit like that school punishment of punishing the whole class because of one person's behaviour - it never worked, the person who had behaved badly was going to anyway, and probably would again.

  12. I agree with "desmondvoodoo" that these crimes are not worse than other crimes being committed every day in the UK and I've never heard a call for the removal of benefits before. There was collective shock that the rioting and looting could be so contagious, but the end results (ie. the crimes) were still the same old crimes.
    With regard to CCTVs - I was impressed with the number of people shopping other people that they'd recognised in the photos. I even saw a photo of a young mother dragging her young teen into a police station. The cameras may not be everywhere, and some of the thugs are in masks and hoodies, but identifying a handful of thugs is better than none at all.

  13. I think that these vandals should be made to put back something in Society to help the people who have been vandalised.
    They should have to do Community Service for years and have some of their benefits reduced. I think it would make people think twice about doing such things in the first place.
    They should all have to attend classes on Socialising and the effect that this type of crime has on ordinary folk. Parents too!
    I'm sorry but these people didn't HAVE to set their fires and steal & hit people..... no one forced them to do it. They CHOSE to do it.
    No good crying about their punishments now.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  14. Maggie - there definitely has to be a longer term plan to avoid this type of behaviour in the future. I think part of my objection to just yanking their benefits right now, is that it hasn't been thought out at all. In the long run though, there definitely has to be a lot of thought put into what such a generous welfare system results in - feckless, lazy individuals who don't give a $#*T about anyone else. (And I'm a pretty left-wing person too!)

  15. There have been a lot of calls for different things - taking benefits, restoration of national service, boot camps etc etc.

    Most of it is reactionary hot air, and I don't think there's much question of it actually being put into practice.

    I don't think long custodial sentences would be especially helpful, though short ones (or the threat of them) might serve some use for some people.

    I do think that, as with raising children, the punishment should fit the crime, and therefore I would be inclined towards community service - make them work bloody hard, for a lot of hours and in public. They should make reparation for what they've done, and hopefully they'll learn something about hard work and respect for other people and their property in the process.

  16. Regarding the previous, lesser punishments for greater crimes mentioned by awindram, desmondvoodoo, and Expatmum, that is partially my point. The public doesn't trust or respect the courts precisely because of the systemic toleration of muggings, gang crime, knife crime. Previous lax punishment does not create an entitlement for current lax punishment. The riots multiplied so quickly in part because the looters expected that there would be few consequences. They took that bet. And the compassion of many here is paying off for them. They rely on the public to be soft.
    I realize that few are comfortable with harsh sentencing and consequences, but are there any circumstances in which you would support removal of benefits and/or longterm incarceration?
    It isn't a question I expect everyone to answer on this thread, but just something to think about. Are there any lines you will not allow the lawless to cross?

  17. I'm sorry but I don't think ever mentioned lesser sentences for greater crimes anywhere in my comments, and it's certainly not what I was advocating.
    Having said that, as a former Criminology student, I can tell you that a) criminals don't stop and think about sentencing possibilities before committing a crime. At the most, they will consider the possibility of getting caught. b) Lesser sentences, as Mrs. Baum said, often do work, which is why the 'short, sharp shock' was suggested a few decades ago. What tends to happen with longer sentences is that inmates learn how to become better criminals, and become almost immune to the worse aspects of the criminal system. 6 months is said to be about the length of sentence needed to make sure that the inmate is still in shock at the experience, and is released vowing never to go back inside. Any longer and they don't care.

    With regard to benefits, while I think that there's no point in stripping them in the rioting case, there are far too many benefits given out as a whole in the UK and that needs to be greatly reduced.

  18. So to answer the question (which isn't totally relevant to the post topic, but never mind) - removal of benefits, yes I think that this should happen, but to society as a whole and they should be phased out rather than just removed on an ad hoc basis. I think most people in the UK would now agree that too many people are making a living on benefits when they are perfectly capable of finding work and supporting themselves.
    Longer sentencing - apart from a means of incarcerating those who are a danger to society, I'm in two minds because, as I said, it's not a deterrent and costs the taxpayer a lot of money. The USA gives sentences of over 100 years in some cases, but the crime rate here is appalling. As has been suggested here, in many instances, criminals should be made to make meaningful reparation in the form of community service and/or cleaning up the mess they personally made when committing their crime.

  19. Totally agree that the idea of cutting off benefits is ridiculous. As a self-confessed liberal, I hate knee-jerk right-wing reactions on principal, but also because they're usually ill-thought through and counter-productive. This is no different - making tons of people homeless is hardly going to make things better for anyone.

    Mike I love you, but I have to disagree with your explanation of why these kids did what they did. When I was growing up - in what you would probably call the good old days of Margaret Thatcher - this exact behavior and these exact attitudes existed. They don't have anything to do with 'hand-wringing do-gooders' nor did they just spring up in the last 20 years.

    The reasons for the recent troubles are many and varied and there's plenty of blame to go round including a good chunk of it to Tory policies that broke up working class communities. Perhaps it would be most helpful for the government to look north to cities like Newcastle, Leeds, Glasgow, Bradford and Sheffield, and ask why no one rioted there. To me that's where some of the answers might lie.

  20. @ExpatMum, apologies for the lack of precision on my part. I meant that comments by the three of you about sentencing for commonplace crimes seemed to be snowballing into a circular argument of 'but we haven't used strict punishments in the past, why would we start now when some of these crimes are similar?" I was writing late at night and didn't bother to quote the relevant text.
    As for my question, it is relevant. The post realities of certain punishments and whether it is appropriate or effective. I have asked under what circumstances others would agree that harsher than normal punishment is warranted. Furthermore, does not a good comment thread delve into an issue rather than merely liking or disliking the original post? Isn't that why you created Pond Parleys? There is not much point in Pond "Parleys" if commenters are discouraged from extended discussion.

    Your last comments about rehabilitation are getting deep into criminal punishment theory. So deep that I'm doing a post on Crime and Punishment at my place because even this rough is a long comment. The main points:
    There are different purposes of criminal punishment.
    1. Incapacitation: A felon in prison cannot commit crimes while imprisoned.
    2. Deterrence: The threat of punishment discourages people from crime.
    3. Restitution: The felon is required to take some action to at least partially return the victim to the status quo ante.
    4. Retribution: The felon harmed society; therefore society (or the direct victims) is entitled to inflict harm in return.
    5. Rehabilitation: The punishment works to make the felon a law abiding citizen.

    Most crim law scholarship holds that a punishment need only satisfy one element to be valid, not advisable, merely valid. Most punishments have more than one purpose at work, e.g. a life sentence serves incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence. (I know at least ExpatMum doesn't agree with the latter. I'll get to that in the post.)

  21. Next, not all the elements work on the same person. The purposes work in tadem, but incapacitation and retribution, and rehabilitation act on the criminal. Restitution acts on the criminal and the victim. Deterrence acts on everybody.

    Then, there is the fracturing of rehabilitation. Rehabilitiation assumes that the criminal is redeemable. Surely, many are--the young moreso than the old, the car thief moreso than the pedophile. But something that no one here has address, and that frankly much of the modern left does not address, is what to do with the irredeemable? In this case, what is the law to do with the 28 year old who just wants to watch the world burn? Some of them won't be redeemed, and talk of 6 month sentences and community service will just put them back on the street.

    And yes to Discombobulated's point about the courts, the courts are in the best position to judge who might be redeemable or who simply needs to be locked up for the long haul. My concern with the lines of thought in this thread is not that you should all be willing to throw the book at the looters, but that it might be necessary for some, the "dangers to society".
    The British public needs to be open to the possibility of harsher punishment. It has not in the recent past and therefore courts, and police for that matter, have been lenient. Such lenience is partly responsible for the riots. For instance, why didn't the police take aggressive measures sooner? Because as this thread illustrates, most Brits are not comfortable with aggressive policing. If they had brought out water cannon the first night, not an unreasonable position after the spring's protest riots, how many would have complained of police brutality?
    There are two main problem for the criminal justice system at this time. To prevent further riots law enforcement must incapacitate those who will not be turned, deter those who might be inspired, and rehabilitate those they can. Two, they must convince law abiding citizens that they are safe or the law abiding will take matters into their own hands. They won't wait until night 4 the next time. And they will not be lenient. Overlay the framework of class, race, and sect tensions in modern British society and the recent riots will look mild by comparison.

  22. I tend to refer to, and agree with, the 1999 UK Prison Rules -

    "The purpose of the training AND treatment (my emphasis) of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life."
    There is no mention of AH's points 2,3 and 4 and point 1. is an obvious result. The 1999 Young Offender Institution Rules are similar.

    I accept, AH, that your question is relevant in the wider context and it wasn't my intention to stifle discussion. That would be pointless, especially on this blog.

    I'm not sure there should ever be crimes which merit harsher than normal punishment, when that punishment is plucked from thin air, as with the "remove their benefits" argument. If harsher punishments are to exist, they must be articulated and communicated before being executed. (Excuse the pun). To make up punishments as the mood fits, is more than arbitrary and smacks of lawlessness IMO.

    In light of the deterrence argument, surely a punishment that hasn't been threatened and communicated before the event is no deterrent at all? If benefits are removed from these offenders, (apart from the bureaucratic nightmare that will unleash), they are being treated as scapegoats and made examples of. People might agree with that, but my point is that this goes against the deterrence argument.

    We may have to agree to disagree on many points here, but thanks all for a great disucssion. Pop over to AH's blog for more.


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