LONDON—It wasn’t long ago that David Cameron launched what became known as his “Hug a Hoodie” campaign—an initiative born of a public outcry over Britain’s ill-behaved youths, and one that ended in ridicule when hooded youths mocked the then opposition leader during a photo opportunity.
Now as prime minister, Cameron is opting for tough love in the wake of Britain’s riots.
He has declared anyone convicted in the unrest will be jailed, and he’s even warned rioters that they may be kicked out of state-subsidized housing. “We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you,” he said.
Some critics say the hardline stance falls short.
Among them are law-enforcement officials and youth workers who claim Britain has taken too soft an approach to juvenile offenders. Too many receive cautions, which they ignore. Others have been given Anti-Social Behavior Orders, an invention of the previous Labour government which have been derided as largely ineffective, even being used as a badge of honor by delinquent youths. The ones who have ended up in juvenile detention centers often have access to luxuries like PlayStations or computer games.
“There is frustration because a lot of these people are people front-line officers have dealt with before,” said Andy Trotter, chief constable of British Transport Police who is helping police with the riots.
“The approach to juvenile justice has often been to use cautions and then further cautions. There’s nothing wrong with trying to rehabilitate them, but there has also been this lack of sanction.”
Sanction is very much on the minds of police, politicians and judges since four nights of riots wreaked havoc in London and other English cities. More than 1,700 people have been arrested and almost 700 charged in London alone, as officials try to show the rioters—and the British public—that they are in control.
Since Wednesday, several courts around the country sat overnight to dispense swift justice to the accused, most of whom are in their teens or early 20s. Police said about half those charged in London were 18 or under.
Some have pleaded guilty and in most cases received jail sentences—or were sent to a higher court which has the power to impose longer terms of imprisonment. A majority have not been granted bail as they await their next hearing.
To liberal-minded observers, some of the punishments appear harsh. Londoner Nicholas Robinson received six months in jail for stealing a case of water valued at 3.50 pounds ($5) from a looted supermarket. The 23-year-old student had no previous convictions and his lawyer said he took the water on impulse because he was thirsty.
In Manchester, 20-year-old Jordan Kelly was sentenced to six months for “going equipped for burglary.” He was caught carrying a garbage bag and a homemade ski mask.
Rajinder Claire, a lawyer for several of the accused, said suspects who would normally get bail were being remanded in custody.
Britain has one of the highest rates of youth offenders in Europe and one of the highest incidences of violent youth crime, according to European Union statistics. It also locks up more young people than most of its neighbors. In June, 2,253 youths 18 and under were in custody.
Britain’s jails and detention centers are also near capacity—the prison population in England and Wales is at a record high of 85,931, according to government statistics released Friday. Officials say said the 2,100 empty spaces in the system are enough to accommodate the flood of rioters.
But some who work with young offenders say the statistics mask ineffective policy.
“In Britain we have no real punitive measures,” said a youth social services worker named Andrew, who asked to only be identified by his first name so he would not be identified by youths he has counseled. “There’s loads of carrot and absolutely no stick. You need a mix of both.”
He said in the six years that he’s been working in Britain’s juvenile justice, few of the youth offenders he’s worked with have been rehabilitated.
“You’re not even allowed to call their detention rooms cells because people believe you’ll destroy their self-esteem,” he said. “I would agree with trying some soft approaches if they worked but I haven’t seen that they have.”
Some say failings in Britain’s approach to dealing with juvenile offenders were laid bare when a Muslim youth was murdered in a youth facility.
Zahid Mubarek, 19, was beaten to death by Robert Stewart, a skinhead, in March 2000 at the Feltham Young Offender Institution. He was bludgeoned to death with a table leg the day he was due to be released.
A report into the incident identified 186 failings that contributed to his death, including a crowded prison system hamstrung by lack of staff, morale and resources.
In the U.S., the approach with juvenile offenders differs among states. Several have begun asking judges to send young offenders to community programs or group homes, using youth prisons or detention centers as a last resort because of recidivism rates up to 80 percent following detention and because the prisons are more expensive. Missouri, which has become a national model for the community-based approach, had reported cutting its recidivism rate to 30 percent.
In New York,with an emphasis on working with children and families at home, the number of youths locked up dropped from 2,313 to 627 in the last decade, with the state closing 10 detention centers.
Youths from age 7 to 15 are considered juvenile delinquents with their cases heard in Family Court. At 16 to 18, they may be sent to adult court and face actual prison time or they can be treated as youthful offenders for a first offense with a sentence of less than four years.
In Britain, youths under 18 are usually sent to youthful offenders facilities.
Trotter recalls his own childhood in Britain when everyone knew “the borstal boy,” a term referring to a type of youth prison.
“There was a sense of social shame then, but in a more challenged and anonymous society, that sense of wrong is more diluted,” Trotter says.
“There are no easy answers for this—it’s not the fault of single moms, politicians or bankers—but this is a real watershed moment for society, and hopefully something good can come out of all of this.”