The news that a young man who opportunistically stole a bottle of water during the riots has been sentenced to six months in prison has about it a slight whiff of the eighteenth century, writes Robert Bargery, Director of the Georgian Group. If not exactly transportation to Australia, the punishment seems an extreme response to an act conducted in the heat of the moment – a response that will stain for life the reputation of a youngster of previously good character. There are other very similar examples of first offenders responsible for minor transgressions being imprisoned.
There seems a risk here of a loss of perspective and subtlety. Justice that is punitive must also be condign, in other words appropriate to the offence. Locking up petty thieves who acted irrationally and out of character in a moment of madness is highly inefficient, committing the state to fund their board, lodging and round-the-clock supervision when there is no suggestion that they are routinely a threat to the public. It also forces them into day-to-day contact with offenders who are exactly that. Basically civilised people such as the one-time water thief might be able to weather that storm, but we are creating a wholly unnecessary risk of contamination for those you might call ‘floating offenders’, impressionable people who might never reoffend if managed properly but who, confined to the wrong environment, might get sucked into a life of crime.
Disproportionate penalties breed resentment as they appear contrary to natural justice. A far better response for petty offenders would be sentences based on redemption. This is an underused principle of justice and one that custodial sentences make hard to exploit. Incarceration is the epitome of unproductiveness: offenders are removed from the society they have harmed, unable to redeem themselves in any meaningful way even if they wanted to and freed from the need to confront the effect of their actions on others. A physical and emotional wedge is driven between them and society, driving out any real possibility of constructive engagement.
For types such as the water thief, should we not stop trying to emulate Judge Jeffreys and instead introduce a new category of Redemption Orders, where minor offenders are required to perform constructive tasks to help the communities they damaged and to earn society’s forgiveness. There is no need for chain gangs or Guantanamo jumpsuits: the Orders could be supervised in a civilised manner by respected volunteers. This would allow them to have a double purpose as a form of mentoring.
Our streetscapes, townscapes and historic environments could benefit hugely from such a policy. Over the past eighteen months, Britain has seen the emergence of numerous civic societies dedicated to the improvement of local environments. Could they and the amenity societies be asked to perform a public service by overseeing the Redemption Orders? As director of the Georgian Group, I can commit one such society to playing a full role. The benefits could be considerable: genuine action to improve debased environments (think of all the rubbish-strewn towpaths, pockets of flyblown no-man’s land and graffiti-defaced walls that need attention) and a class of offenders who, instead of languishing in prison for unpremeditated petty theft, would be given satisfying work making our cities better places to live. They might even end the process with some applicable new skills.