Nearly 75% of those aged over 18 and charged with offences committed during the 2011 English riots, had prior criminal convictions. In some urban neighbourhoods, there had been an intimidating atmosphere from a section of young people who can be aggressive in their demeanour and unafraid of social disapproval. We might wonder whether the prospect of criminal punishment deters such individuals.
I’m not necessarily talking about all the looters during the recent riots some of whom to my mind were shallow thrill seekers joining in because they thought they could get away with avoiding criminal punishment. But rather those engaged in the mob violence, many armed with bricks, who didn’t care too much if they were caught. Some of these people were quite prepared to throw heavy slabs through police car windscreens and hurl petrol bombs at officers. This aggression towards the authority of law enforcement suggests a deeply held antagonism to mainstream society by a widespread if small criminal minority who are likely to end up receiving criminal punishment sooner or later.
The attitude of criminal punishment as a just desert
A few commentators have adopted a condemnatory attitude.
“These people are just scum and that’s the end of it. They deserve all the criminal punishment dished out to them.”
And there is a common view that trying to throw light on the riots in terms of social problems is tantamount to excusing individual actions. Social explanations do not erase responsibility of individuals but labelling these people as criminals does not help us understand why they became the way they are. Examining any relevant factors in society is not to justify behaviour but to try to throw some light on it. I would suggest a spiritual attitude is to condemn the behaviour but not the person: it is to look to enhance civil and moral order.
Criminal punishment that allows the drug habit
Is one of the possible social causes of the problem to do with the way society may have failed in its challenge to unacceptable behaviour? In other words, is disorder more likely on our streets because it has not been met with a sufficiently firm, fast and sustained response? It is well known a lot of crime is motivated by a desire to feed a drug habit. And so to the outsider like me it is a bit of a mystery why the problem of drug availability in many of our prisons has not been successfully addressed. According to this way of thinking as people get away with acting badly, social norms about law-abiding behaviour have been weakened.
A charitable attitude to criminal punishment
To my mind, a spiritual approach encourages the kind of punishment for wrong-doing that clarifies to everyone what is right, deters future crime and protects people from harm. I believe this element of social control is entirely in line with a charitable attitude. It is a very different approach to the one that sees punishment as there to make us feel better when criminals get their ‘just deserts’. Arguably, such an un-charitable attitude is counter-productive. Short-term imprisonment has been shown not to work in preventing re-offending. We need to be more creative in developing punishment that does work better. This is not to argue that punishment alone is enough but to suggest it is a crucial part of the mix of the ways disorderly behaviour can be more effectively challenged.
Community sentences as a form of criminal punishment
Offenders have not been obliged to face the consequences of their actions for example by paying back to the communities they have damaged. They need informing about what should happen locally to repair the harm they have caused. This is not a soft option. It is very popular amongst victims and can help those hurt by crime to feel a sense of closure. It is said to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
Community sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment has not found public confidence. I suspect one reason is it has been seen as a less expensive alternative to locking people up and therefore insufficient resources have been allocated to give it a chance to have some impact.
Restorative justice as a community programme can be combined with various forms of punishment. It is a process requiring skilled facilitation – thus financial investment. Those who advocate it argue that it has the potential to help in the repair of fractured relationships and to foster a sense of responsibility in those who wronged others. I believe it is entirely in line with a psycho-spiritual response to wrong-doing whereby true charity of feeling cannot be divorced from good sense of the understanding in action – the heart, head and hands working together.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems