JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 19.8.11
THIS MORNING, at The Scotsman’s weekly Fringe First Award ceremony, one of our prizes for outstanding new work on the Fringe will be picked up by a company called Icon Theatre of London, for their show Release, playing at the Pleasance Dome. Created through a year-long process of interviews and research, Release is a short, gripping 75-minute whirlwind of a show which tells the stories of three young people emerging from prison sentences, and trying to “go straight” and rebuild their lives.
I won’t give the whole story of Release away; but two truths emerge strongly from the narrative. First, that young adults emerging from prison are frighteningly dependent on the quality of the support they receive from the probation services, and other agencies; few of them can rely on family and friends, and many ended up in prison in the first place because of broken or abusive family relationships. And secondly – even more importantly – that if young people emerging from prison cannot find work, then their chances of staying on the straight and narrow rapidly plummet towards zero.
All of which provides some serious food for thought, given the orgy of harsh sentencing in the English courts that has followed the recent riots and looting in London, and across other cities in England. At a crude psychological level, it’s easy to understand the panic-stricken, punitive rage that has swept through the justice system, as kids are given longer sentences than rapists for posting pro-riot comments on Facebook, and mothers of young children are put in the slammer for accepting a stolen t-shirt from a friend.
The fact that this response is understandable, though, in no way excuses its blatant injustice, or its alarming foolishness. So here, just for the record, are the four ways in which the current conduct of the Engish courts, with the evident support of the British government, reinforces and multiplies the damage done by the rioters, in ways that can only be described as stupid. First, at the spiritual and psychological level, it involves an act of scapegoating and “othering” of the kind which is expressly condemned by all the great religions of the world. No doubt many of the magistrates involved think of themselves as decent Christian people; one therefore wonders what on earth they think Jesus was talking about, when he spoke of motes and beams, and of removing the beam of legitimised material greed from our own eyes, before ruining a kid’s life over the mote of crime involved in looting a pair of trainers.
Secondly, at the moral level, the current position of the government, police and courts is not sustainable. It’s one thing to impose heavy sentences on people from poor or ordinary backgrounds for robbery and looting. It’s quite another, though, to do so while blatantly turning a blind eye to the far more ambitious recent looting of our economy by a failed financial elite, and by many other elements in our bonus-hungry boss-class. The Prime Minister apparently does not realise just how absurd he looks, as a representative of this class, when he condemns the ruthless pocketing of other people’s hard-earned wealth as a crime that will not be tolerated; but the young people of Britain have no difficulty in spotting the double standards involved, and in drawing their own conclusions about the moral credibility of the British government.
In the third place, the ultra-punitive response to the recent riots is stupid in social terms, because it provides no vision of how British society can move forward from this point. On the contrary, by legitimising ever more extreme feelings of hatred against those involved, it radically increases the likelihood that these youngsters will never be able to reintegrate into society; it feeds the illusion that people who commit such crimes can somehow be “got rid of” – stripped of benefits, evicted from their homes , banned from social networks – and contributes to a dumbed-down culture of denial about the fact that they will remain part of our society, whether we like it or not.
And then finally, it has to be said that the government’s ill-considered response to these riots is likely to prove, in the long term, horrifically expensive, not least because it legitimises and encourages the kinds of unrelenting attitudes that could see many of the people convicted this week locked out of the British labour market for life. With 20% of British under-24-year-olds now out of work, the possible cost of “carrying”such a disaffected and disruptive class of excluded people for a lifetime is frightening even to contemplate; and that’s to say nothing of the additional costs involved in any further crimes they go on to commit, and in the likely breakdown of any family arrangements they make.
It would obviously be much better, in other words, to keep most of last week’s young rioters out of prison; to help them sustain their family relationships; to make them carry out community service on the streets where they committed their crimes, so as to get make real reparation to those they hurt; and to ensure that once their sentence is served, they are given a chance of useful work, a viable income, and a decent place to live.
To the great British public, in its current mood, this will sound like molly-coddling those who deserve nothing but punishment.
Yet the truth – painfully clear to almost all those who have seriously studied young offenders, and to those who tell their stories in shows like Release – is that the “soft option” in relation to young offenders is not only the most morally defensible, and the most socially responsible, but also, in all probability, the cheapest. For it not only saves us the sky-high cost of keeping youngsters in prison. It also gives them the best possible chance of one day becoming useful, contributing citizen themselves; rather than living monuments to the waste of human potential, in a society that has failed in justice, failed in forgiveness, and failed – above all – in the wisdom that tells us how to keep on loving the criminal, even while we hate the crime.