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Sentencing policy – it’s mandatory to think inside the box

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In the debate on mandatory sentences Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, made a rather odd contribution on BBC1’s Question Time the other day. He explained the sort of people who end up in British jails: drug addicts, people with a history of being sexually abused, people in a family cycle of violence who end up as violent offenders. And the answer to the deep-seated social problems IDS had identified? One was expecting a brief flash of compassionate Conservatism, but no. Lock ’em up, as per the new tougher sentencing policy.

Asked whether the jail system, groaning with nearly 88,000 inmates, could cope, his answer was equally simple: “It’ll have to”.

Conservative thinking on crime seems to amount to putting it in a box and throwing away the key. There are criminal elements out there; the quicker we can get them into the prison system, the better.

Take the massaged message on criminal involvement in the UK riots. The statistics coming out of Home Office research, based on data available up to mid-October, indicated just over 75 per cent of those coming before courts had some sort of criminal conviction. It’s the sort of “fact” that is enough for the Government to blame pure criminality rather than austerity or the general long-term grinding disadvantage that the poor suffer from. “These figures confirm that, in the vast majority of cases, existing criminals were out in force during the disturbances in August,” said Criminal Justice Minister Nick Herbert.

But how meaningful is the 75 per cent figure? Statisticians are likely to be less convinced than Herbert that it shows anything at all since any statistical figure has to be compared with another, usually a random sample, to adjudge its significance. Seventy five per cent on its own is simply a big number, not a meaningful statistic.

‘These figures confirm that, in the vast majority of cases, existing criminals were out in force during the disturbances in August’ – Nick Herbert

For a start, how many people might you expect to have had a conviction in the normal run of things? Remarkably it looks likely that a quarter of men have a conviction: “It is estimated that 23.5 per cent of males in England and Wales in the age range 10 – 52 in 2006 had a conviction” (Conviction Histories of Offenders, Ministry of Justice).

But rioting is a young person’s game and younger people have fewer convictions than the average 52-year-old in the autumn of his life of crime – and fewer young people have any convictions at all. Half those convicted so far in the riots were aged 20 or below. Nevertheless there are reasons to think that, on a quiet night, a random trawl in the riot areas among the potential riot demographic would produce nearly 20 per cent of men and boys with previous convictions (see back of the envelope figures below).

But this was not a round-up of random people – or even of random rioters. The Home Office figures are based on 4,000 arrests and 2,000 court appearances. What we do not know is how many actual “rioters” there were on the streets on those five August days. (By “rioters” we must include all those involved in riot-related offences such as burgling shops or individual acts of violence since “riot” is hardly ever prosecuted – as explained here.)

Since riot-related offences ranged from arson down to stealing a bit of chewing gum or being given items of looted property, instinctually one feels those involved were far more than 4,000. Some will have been racked with guilt and handed themselves in, others might have been dobbed in by their parents, hoping for leniency from magistrates. Numbers may have been recognised by neighbours on some of the footage reproduced by the newspapers. But for the most part they will have been caught by good old-fashioned police work.

And police are particularly good at arresting criminals – that is to say, known criminals with police records. Not surprisingly the huge mass of CCTV and other image-evidence from the riots has been edited down to the best mugshots and placed on computer discs for police officers to sift through to find out whether they recognise anyone. And as they tend to recognise people they have come across in their professional capacity, it is “existing criminals” who are most likely to hear that firm knock on the door.

So we can only guess what the real proportion was of those involved in the riots who were “existing criminals” – but we can be pretty sure it was less than 75 per cent.

The point of this is not to downplay the criminality, which in many cases was gross, nor to suggest that the “aggravated shopping” of the riots offences doesn’t really count in a world where the boss of the WPP ad agency can say his basic salary of £1m is “very low“, or where there is a class of people who can trash commercial establishments and simply wave a Coutts cheque so the problem goes away.

The point is that the real shock of the riots might be less that it was orchestrated by gangs (the figures show 13 per cent of those convicted had gang affiliations) and inveterate criminals than that it involved fairly ordinary young people living under not so ordinary social pressures and always closer to crime than we would like to think. Just putting them in boxes marked criminality is not enough, as even Iain Duncan Smith probably acknowledges in his heart.


The figure for previous convictions among juvenile males is 2 per cent, for men aged 20 it is about 4.5 per cent rising to about 13 per cent for those aged 30. So a round-up of average young men might produce roughly 9 per cent with previous convictions.

But the other half of those before the courts for riot related offences were older than 20 and we are talking about urban and inner city areas where the “normal” crime rate would be higher. So it is likely that a larger proportion of such people would have convictions, perhaps a third above the average rate. The figure would be further skewed upwards by normally higher crime London where most of the riot offences occurred (68%). So, on a logical guesstimate, taken at random, the sort of men who might riot (50% younger than 20, 50% other ages) living in the riot areas might produce getting on for 20 per cent with previous convictions.

The argument above suggests the captured and convicted rioters will have come disproportionately from this 20 per cent of young to youngish former offenders.

About alrich

Journalist and blogger on legal and financial/economics issues

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