Three-quarters of the adults charged already had a conviction, which is why urgent reforms are needed
I've dealt with plenty of civil disobedience in my time, but the riots in August shocked me to the core. What I found most disturbing was the sense that the hardcore of rioters came from a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism. Equally worrying was the instinctive criminal behaviour of apparently random passers-by. What are the lessons for the justice system?
The first is that disorder on our streets must be met with a firm, fast and sustained response. The system was briefly caught unawares, but tested like never before, and ultimately gave a quick and definitive answer to those who thought they could commit crime without consequence. It's thanks to the police officers who cancelled leave, the staff who kept courts open all hours and the judiciary who worked through the night that rioters high on violence soon found themselves facing the cold, hard accountability of the dock. I am hugely impressed by the dedication of our staff, some of whom worked 35-hour shifts to ensure the efficient delivery of justice. These are public-spirited people, doing their duty in the best traditions of public service. The criminal justice system was itself on trial and, though it's still early days, so far it has coped well. It has the capacity – whether in courts, in prisons, in prison transit or probation – to deal with those who come before it.
The second lesson of the riots is that they reaffirm the central point of any sane criminal justice policy: where crimes have been committed, offenders must be properly punished and pay back to the communities they have damaged. The scale of the violence and looting was new, but crimes like arson and burglary are not – and our courts do deal severe punishments to serious offenders.
Needless to say, sentences have been variously attacked as too soft and too tough. I could draw the conclusion that in the main, the judges have probably been getting it about right – but, of course, only those in court know the full facts of each case. The judiciary in this country is independent and we should trust judges and magistrates to base decisions on individual circumstances. Injustices can occur in any system: but that's precisely why we enjoy the services of the court of appeal.
I reject the criticisms of a lay and professional judiciary that has risen to an unprecedented challenge superbly. What the riots really illustrate is the need to make sentencing and other areas of the judicial system more transparent so that the public can understand the decisions that have been reached.
Punishment alone though is not enough, and that's the third lesson I draw from the riots. Locking people up without reducing the risk of them committing new crimes against new victims the minute they get out does not make for intelligent sentencing.
It's not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were, in fact, known criminals. Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful. In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system who haven't been changed by their past punishments.
I am introducing radical changes to focus our penal system relentlessly on proper, robust punishment and the reduction of reoffending. This means making our jails places of productive hard work, addressing the scandal of drugs being readily available in many of our prisons and toughening community sentences so that they command public respect. And underpinning it all, the most radical step of all: paying those who rehabilitate offenders, including the private and voluntary sectors, by the results they achieve, not (as too often in the past) for processes and box-ticking.
However, reform can't stop at our penal system alone. The general recipe for a productive member of society is no secret. It has not changed since I was inner cities minister 25 years ago. It's about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and, beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society. What is different now is that a growing minority of people in our nation lack all of those things and, indeed, have substituted an inflated sense of expectation for a commitment to hard graft. That's why reform is so important and the reason we have established the communities and victims panel to explore what lessons can be learned, from the riots and the civic action to clear up the damage. We need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy.
Addressing unemployment means making progress on the economy by getting the deficit under control and pressing ahead with welfare reform and work programmes. Building stronger families means gripping the 120,000 most problematic ones and really addressing their problems, not leaving them in touch with, but untouched by, dozens of different agencies. A decent education means liberalising our schools system so that more students can benefit from high standards and discipline.
The coalition has a renewed mission: tackling the financial deficit, for certain. But also, importantly, addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted.