Sunday, 21 August 2011

The riots

Everyone seems to be writing about the riots, so here goes. 
I watched the TV in disbelief, trying to make sense of what was happening. It seems that the total number of looters and rioters is probably not more than a few thousand, but a few hundred people descending on an area, intent on doing damage, can certainly cause a lot of trouble before there is any chance of police getting there.
It is also not surprising that no one saw it coming. Opinion polls take samples of a few hundred people, so the chances of finding even one of the looters in a sample is vanishingly small. From listening to the few rioters who have been interviewed it also seems pretty unlikely that their opinion could be sampled, pollsters would be unlikely to make sense of the incoherent ramblings we have seen so far. I also doubt if any pollster has ever asked anyone what he or she would do if they walked past a shop that was smashed open. Would you pick up a cake? Actually I wouldn't, certainly not if it was lying amongst a pile a wreckage. Would I pick up a pair of trainers, or a jacket? It is hard to say, I suspect there is some object out there that none of us could resist.
We are now seeing many people coming through the courts and in due course they will have their lives made worse though serving jail terms, paying fines, losing their jobs and having a criminal record. There is a risk that this will create an underclass that have no reason to take any notice of the sort of rules the rest of us live by. In all probability, some of them will have regrets. It seems clear that some of the looters were just swept along by the opportunity and probably did not imagine getting caught.
One of the first cases to come up was a man who apparently pleaded guilty to something related to the riots. He has a job working in a school. What effect will this have on his career? Hardly likely to improve his prospects I suspect. Two more teenagers were shown coming out of court, one yelled at the media, 'we don't want to be photographed.' There are probably a fair number of shopkeepers happy to yell, 'we don't want to be looted.' The thing about society is that it is a two way street, we all have to play by the rules. You can't loot shops and then say you don't want to be photographed, you can't join in a riot and expect to carry on as normal the next day.
The deeper problem appears to be that there seem to be groups of people who have become disconnected with society in general. Whether this is the 'fault' of 'the schools' or 'the parents' or 'society' is a pointless question. Establishing blame will achieve nothing unless it can be part of a solution. The right question, which the media seem incapable of asking, is "What will it take to put this right?" We do not appear currently, to have any organisations or institutions that are up to the task.
Although parents are often blamed, the care system appears even worse. Children who grow up with the state as a parent are less likely than average to leave school with any sort of qualification. They are also more likely to end up in prison. The care system seems to be very good at taking innocent victims of family breakdown and turning them into people we can blame for something. Taking these children away from the parents would make little sense. Prison does not do much better, the numbers of ex-prisoners who end up back in jail suggests that locking up the looters in our current institutions is unlikely to reform them.
 I am drawn to the idea that something different is required. Fundamentally, it seems to me that the notion of serving time is the wrong model. We need people who are found guilty to come out of the judicial experience less likely to behave badly in future. Personally, I suspect we need something like American Grade School. We need to set some standards for behaviour and everyday competence and when those standards have been achieved, the offender can be released. If you don’t make the grade, you go round again. This is a bit like the theory test before the real driving test. If you can’t pass the theory of society then you need supervision. Some wide consultation would be needed as to the content of the test, the curriculum for being a model citizen, but we already have a citizen test for immigrants, so it can't be too hard to do.
I had always thought that some sort of compliance with society was what the probation service was supposed to achieve. I imagine that some sort of community service order together with geotagging of some sort would probably be effective. Given modern technology it would be simple to tag someone so that we would know where he or she was and if they were anywhere near some future disturbance we would know immediately.
To some extent, supervision must come from an organisation established for the purpose, like the probation service, but some element of supervision could come from the community, either through workplace schemes or contributions to what for anyone else would be voluntary work.
Ultimately if a person continues to offend they will end up in jail, simply to remove them from circulation; but if more potential prisoners were supervised in the community, and effectively by the community, there would be more time and space in jails to do more serious education and reform. It is foolish to assume that prison can completely prepare anyone for a return to normal life; it cannot replicate the same challenges, opportunities and threats. That means that every prison sentence should be followed by a period of supervision and testing in the community.
Of course, it is possible that offenders could cheat, crib the answers or lie, but modern psychometric tests are quite good at lie detection. It can't be very hard to spot many of the bad attitudes and behaviours, much of the time. I'm sure we would all feel more reassured if a significant proportion of potential troublemakers had geotags, and were made to do some useful work, and were only let off when they had proved that they at least knew how they were supposed to behave.

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