Restoring a sense of justice in broken communities
Mar 28, 2012
Last summer major cities in the UK saw serious urban unrest for the first time in a generation. The underlying causes, reasons for the rapid escalation and reaction of public services to the unrest have been the subject of several studies, notably Reading the Riots and the Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel, whose work continues.
The evidence that emerged has already established a clear link between deprivation and rioting, a fact acknowledged by the Independent Riots Panel in their interim report.
....What can be productively discussed now is the failure of the responsible bodies to acknowledge the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of those involved when bringing them before court and passing down sentence. This went hand in hand with a failure to appreciate that punishment alone would further deepen the distrust and conflict in communities.
The Ministry of Justice released updated statistics of those arrested for involvement in the riots in October 2011. Of those brought before court, 64% lived in one of the 20% most deprived areas of the country and 46% were in the 10% lowest-income areas). Only 3% lived in the 20% least-deprived areas. The riots occurred predominantly in areas ranked in worst 10% for crime. More than half the riots were in areas of highest vulnerability for long-term employment.
Other factors also reveal high deprivation or vulnerability. Of the under-eighteens, two-thirds had special educational needs and more than a third had been excluded from school during the previous year (compared to 6 % of all year 11 pupils). Almost a third were persistent absentees (a rate four times higher than their peers). In brief, those involved in the riots were far more likely to come from deprived and disadvantaged areas, live in poverty, have special educational needs and have poor engagement in school.
....This was a situation in which both victims and perpetrators could have benefited from restorative justice. Instead the decision was taken to show a firm fist and hand down severe sentences. The opportunity was lost to promote reparation, allow for positive dialogue about the offences and garner better trust and satisfaction between offenders and victims. Earlier government commitments to seek restorative resolutions where appropriate were left in the shadows.
In fact, as was confirmed in some appeals, the sentences handed down were only just within the boundaries of the law. Ministry of Justice statistics showed that those arrested for offences committed during the riots were six times more likely to be remanded in custody, three and a half times more likely to receive a custodial sentence (42% compared to 12% in England and Wales in 2010) and on average received sentences three times longer (12.5 months average as opposed to 3.7) than individuals arrested in 2010 for similar offences.
....A restorative justice approach would have provided an opportunity to heal community wounds. Offenders who undergo this process are obliged to confront the reality of the harm they have done, to apologise to victims, and to attempt to make amends. They have to take responsibility for the solution. Such a process can break down barriers between groups and contribute to a process of re-integration.
One positive attribute of restorative justice is its flexibility. It can be particularly effective with complicated and sensitive issues, as revealed in a study of its application in Northern Ireland by the Prison Reform Trust. The riots needed a similar response, something that could provide a delicate approach to the tensions within communities and the deep vulnerabilities of those involved. There would have been the added advantage that the process could have provided further insight into the causes and rapid spread of the riots.