Sunday, August 21, 2011

Balance between liberalism and punishing wrong-doing

I think the British government got something wrong (what, wait! A government got something wrong?!). It refused to allow the water canon be used during the riots.Apparently that is because that is not how we do things - we police by consent. But they have been routinely used in Northern Ireland. However, extremely harsh sentences have been hastily handed out to what seems to be to be relatively minor offences during the riots.

This, it seems to be to all be backwards from a practical perspective. People are rioting - smashing up people's livelihoods by destroying their small businesses and flats. Putting lives in danger, attacking fire and ambulance crews and making people feel afraid. The primary aim has to be to stop these people, not just let them carry on.It is difficult to know if the softly-softly approach worked because we can't know the impact of all of the different alternatives but I suspect that a little dose of the water canon could have curtailed some of the rioting.

Now that it is all over though, the harsh sentences being handed out will put extremely minor offenders in prison for pretty long time. In prison, they are going to make friends with all sorts of unsavoury real criminals, feel hard done by (which they are), not contribute to society, not learn important social interaction skills in a normal society (these are young people by and large), be a drain on the tax-payer. In short, they risk becoming real criminals.

I am a pragmatist. Whatever works is best. The choices made here seem to have succeeded in having the worst of both worlds.

It is perhaps a drift towards American liberty and punishment. A country which allows an immense amount of liberty - at least in theory - and which punishes hard those it feels breaks that freedom.

Britain needs to re-think.

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