Monday, August 15, 2011

Deliver Them from Evil

As a youngster I belonged to a gang. Indeed, at times, I was a gang leader. We’d go out at night and hide in the shadows, ride our bicycles along quiet streets and slip between pools of light.

I’d tell my parents “I’m going out with my gang” in the evening. Sometimes we’d “roof rattle”: throw stones onto the roofs of bungalows to make a noise and flee with mischievous glee the moment an angry householder opened his door to chase us.

After an hour or so we’d go home, have a bath and sleep the sleep of the not-so-innocent but carefree. I don’t remember how old I was, but probably the between nine and thirteen years old. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t care for me. I know they did. They just thought that I was having harmless fun with my friends and generallyI was – roof-rattling was uncommon. Most "gang meetings" involved James Bond type fantasies and building forts.  Indeed, if any adult had caught me misbehaving they would have spanked me and dragged me back home to tell my parents why and everyone knew this.

This memory has come back to me in recent days as I’ve seen the riots on television, the newspapers and the Internet.

My first reaction to the riots was one of rage at the wicked destruction and the apparent unwillingness or inability of the police to do anything.

Having had a few nights to sleep on it, my views have moderated.

First, I think it’s important to separate the wicked from the foolish. Someone setting a fire is wicked. Someone stealing a bottle of water or a bag of rice is foolish (indeed stupid). I hope that if something similar had happened when I was out with my gang we would have gone home and told our parents “There are Bad People out there.” But I can’t be sure that I wouldn’t have been swept up by the moment and with naughty juvenile glee at least gone along to watch.

I like to think of myself as a Law Abiding Citizen but when I see the stories of some previously blameless kids who did get involved I think “There but for the grace of God …"

I suspect this is true of many upright members of our community.

Our esteemed Prime Minister was a member of the Bullingdon Club while at Oxford. This club is notorious for trashing the restaurants it patronises, although I hasten to add that I have no idea if such behaviour occurred while David Cameron was a member. Speaking of another episode in his student life, David Cameron has said he has done things he "should not have done and regretted".

Haven’t we all?

Does this mean I think we should go easy on the rioters?

My answer is that “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”

I think there are some principles we should apply.

First off, if we’re dealing with someone aged under 21 who has a previously blameless record and is accused of a relatively minor offence, then I think the sentence should be relatively minor also - but should involve the offender in paying recompense to the community. For example, sentencing someone like this to spend their leisure hours for several months cleaning graffiti or picking litter would help them better serve their community. It would also give them the chance to think over what they have done and why it was a bad idea. There are dozens of such tasks that could be done in the community: weeding the pavements, cutting the verges or fixing potholes.

Next, put the remainder of offenders, except for the most serious ones, into work. What kind of work? For one thing, there is a lot of highway that needs repairing around the country. There are always litter bins that need collecting. There seems to be a constant demand for roads to be dug up for laying or fixing pipes.  According to the National Audit Office, there is a good deal of military accommodation that needs refurbishing: why not get some of the physical work involved done by these offenders?

So include one offender at a time in groups like these, where they will be surrounded by honest people. There is a twofold aim here: to isolate the offenders among hard working people, as well as making them pay for their offence “by the sweat of their brow”.

For the rest – the organisers, the ones who set fires, the ones who were violent – the standard course of justice is the best I can recommend.

But the key proposal above is not for the wicked, but those who might get caught up in wickedness temporarily and who might well be reformed by a punishment that makes them give back to society to make up for what they have taken.

Would that approach bring to heel the riotous evenings of the Bullingdon? I cannot say for sure, but I expect it might. Would it have stopped the little “gangster” me from roof-rattling? Absolutely!


Slim said...

They're all at it:

Cathryn Grant said...

As always, you provide a well thought-out viewpoint. The personalized story helps bring it home!