The Sunday Times

August 12th, 2012

Sentences are a joke and young thugs are laughing the hardest

The excitement of the London Olympics has largely eclipsed other national news. Perhaps that is why there was such a muted response to some shocking moments in the inner London crown court last Wednesday. On that day Judge Usha Karu handed down sentences to 16 members of a collection of about 50 violent thugs who rampaged through Notting Hill, west London, during last summer’s riots.

Theirs wasn’t just any old spontaneous red-mist rioting. Three local criminal gangs — the Ladbroke Bloods, the Lisson Green Mandem and the Mozart Bloods — had got together and co-ordinated on their mobile phones a plan of violent masked attacks, lootings and torchings in the neighbourhood, having set aside their usual quarrels for these criminal purposes.

Among other terrifying crimes, a number of gang members burst into the Ledbury restaurant and attacked the diners, threatening them with knives, bottles and bats. It was for some of these crimes that 16 of the young men involved were sentenced to various terms in jail last week. Most had previous convictions, many of them for offences with violence.

Their crimes were shocking enough, but worse still was the attitude of the guilty. It was reported that, as the judge was passing sentence, many of the young defendants were whooping, shouting obscenities and laughing. There seemed to be no remorse, no understanding of what they had done, no respect for the court and no fear of prison.

One of them, Karl Jensen, whistled with pleasure when he was sentenced to three years in jail. As he has already been in prison on remand for a year, he could now be out in six months. He had been released from prison for a series of robberies only 10 days before the Notting Hill mayhem. “Thank you, your honour,” he said as he was led away laughing. As well he might.

That such young people (aged 15 to 25) should be such vicious, persistent criminals, so remorseless and so without shame, is profoundly unsettling. More startling still, it seems to me, is the way they are sentenced. It was solemnly reported that most of these 16 were given particularly long jail sentences, some of the harshest sentences handed down after the riots. How the jaw drops. The worst two of them got nine years each, another two got seven years, one got 6Å, another got four and all the rest got three or less.

That doesn’t sound much to me for attacking people with bottles and baseball bats, burning their properties and cars (with the obvious risk of burning people), ripping off their jewellery and in one case pulling off a woman’s wedding ring — and doing all this with malice aforethought, cold-bloodedly and with many previous convictions in most cases.

Nine years does not mean nine years. If your prison sentence is for 12 months or more — as any criminal can discover on an easy-to-read government website apparently set up for the information of lawbreakers — you have to spend only half of it in jail. The other half will be spent “on licence” in the community, which no criminal takes seriously: plenty of crimes are committed by convicts on licence. So nine years means 4Å years, or less for good behaviour, with the rest of the time spent at large in the much put-upon community.

It’s the sort of sentencing that makes a criminal thank a judge. The judges cannot be blamed, of course, any more than thanked: their discretion over sentencing is limited, under strict statutory guidelines. But this status quo cannot be right.

Calls for tougher prison sentences are associated with the sensationalist press and heartless rightwingers. Liberals, resisting them, rightly say that prison achieves almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation and is in any case very expensive. Former prisoners’ reoffending rates are very high, if not quite as high as with “community penalties”, and many people are in prison for the wrong reasons, anyway — they are illiterates or drug addicts or unemployable.

That is all true, but, nonetheless, the first duty of a civilised country must be to protect its citizens. Without the rule of just law a good society cannot exist, as is obvious from all the failed states across the world where lawless gangs cause havoc with impunity. A very serious reckoning for serious crimes is what we need more of in this country.

It hardly matters to an anxious citizen whether a violent thug is sent to jail to punish him, to reform him or simply to put him away: what matters is that he should be kept off the streets for a long time. It would be nice if prisons could somehow start achieving miracles in the way of rehabilitation, and turn these damaged and dangerous young men into model citizens. But that seems unlikely: the prisons are overcrowded and their budgets are overstretched. Besides, even if money were no object, it seems quite likely — however much one might prefer not to think so — that some violent and unruly people are beyond redemption.

There is always hope, but there is also evidence that some people are irreparably damaged by their chaotic upbringing: neglect and abuse have been found to inhibit children’s cognitive development, so that in extreme cases they grow up unable to feel for others — they become youths who can tear off a woman’s wedding ring, or pour boiling water over an old woman to torture her.

Then there is the depressing evidence that some children with brain patterns that characterise attention deficit disorder are much more likely than others to grow up to lead lives of violent crime.

Such things may become clearer with advances in science. Meanwhile experience suggests — horribly unfair though it is — that out of the most alienated, disorderly households children are produced who are doomed to grow up to be a menace to society. Their heartless, remorseless violence, and their willingness to threaten and torture, cannot necessarily be cured, least of all by a short spell in this country’s prisons.

Perhaps they could be helped by extremely intensive, long-term therapy from the most gifted of teachers, at huge cost, but that does not seem a likely prospect in the current economic climate. Perhaps they could have been saved in infancy by adoption, but there is massive state sector resistance to that.

So even a liberal might be forced to consider locking such criminals up and, if not throwing the key away, at least putting it aside for a very long time.