Soft sentencing blamed for British riot rampage as it is revealed two thirds had criminal past

Soft sentencing was last night blamed for allowing hardened criminals to go on the rampage during last month’s riots. Official figures showed two thirds of rioters with criminal histories have never tasted prison. That is despite rioters having amassed more than previous 16,000 offences between them – an average of 15 each. One in four of those charged over the riots has committed more than ten offences, and one in 20 has committed 50 or more.

It also emerged that one in ten charged for their part in the violence and looting were either serving a community sentence at the time of their arrest or were ‘on licence’ after release from prison.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the statistics confirmed it was ‘existing criminals’ who had gone ‘on the rampage’.

Last week he revealed that nearly three quarters of rioters have criminal histories, and claimed this showed that the penal system was ‘broken’. He has also argued for sending fewer criminals to jail, saying that short sentences do not provide time for rehabilitation.

But criminologist Dr David Green, from the Civitas think-tank, said locking up would-be rioters would have been ‘100 per cent effective’ at preventing them from joining in the widespread looting. ‘Ken Clarke says prison doesn’t work to rehabilitate people and we need effective community punishments,’ he said.

‘But what these figures actually show is many of the rioters were hardened criminals who should have been in prison. If they had been they would not have been able to go rioting – it is 100 per cent effective at stopping crimes against the public.

‘We are talking about career criminals, and people like that deserve to be sent to prison for a prolonged period to protect ordinary people. There is no evidence that any community sentences are more successful than prison at rehabilitation.’

The figures confirmed that the courts are dishing out tougher punishments to rioters than ordinary offenders.

At five months, the average magistrates’ court jail term for a rioter is twice the average for non-riot crimes. Crown Court jail terms are more than 50 per cent higher.

Crown Court judges have jailed 90 per cent of the riot-related burglars they have dealt with, and every violent offender to have appeared in the dock. But very few riot cases have yet reached the courts.

The Ministry of Justice figures showed 1,715 convicted criminals stand accused of involvement in the riots that hit English cities between August 6 and 9, causing millions of pounds in damage.

Of the 1,561 whose criminal histories were examined by statisticians, nearly three-quarters – a total of 1,133 – had at least one criminal offence to their name. Although the vast majority of offenders were under 25, they have amassed 16,598 offences – or an average of 15 each. But only 406 had ever received a jail term, compared with 727 who had received community punishments, cautions, and other non-custodial sentences. Nearly two thirds were serious offences, including burglary, robbery, drugs crimes and violence.

Mr Clarke said: ‘These figures confirm that existing criminals were on the rampage. I congratulate the courts for delivering swift and firm justice, which stopped the riots spreading further.

‘I am dismayed to see a hard core of repeat offenders back in the system. This reinforces my determination to introduce radical changes to ensure both effective punishment and reform to tackle reoffending.’

In the Guardian last week, he wrote: ‘Close to three quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. ‘That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful.

‘The riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system who haven’t been changed by past punishments.’


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