Punishing rioters’ and looters’ families

By Savi Hensman
August 12, 2011

Many people are angry and frightened at the rioting that has caused such damage in cities across England. Some favour harsh punishments. Ideas which have become popular include cutting off welfare benefits to those convicted and evicting their families from social housing. Wandsworth Council has reportedly already applied to the courts to evict a tenant whose son was involved.

But, as the ancient Book of Proverbs reminds readers, anger is not the best frame of mind in which to make decisions (Proverbs 15.18, 16.32, 19.11). The lawfulness of such measures would be questionable, as well as their wisdom.

To begin with, those left destitute would be even more likely to turn to crime, putting their neighbours at risk (obviously more of a risk for those of us who live and work in the worst-hit areas than those in more prosperous neighbourhoods who were not directly affected). Putting children in care is also hugely expensive, which would further hit already-stretched budgets, and possibly lead to longer-term problems.

Perhaps even more importantly, such actions are unjust and disproportionate. Of course, those involved in the trouble behaved badly, but it is important for the authorities to act in a more restrained and just manner.

To start with, these sanctions are clearly aimed at those on lower incomes: the best-off families whose members were found guilty will not be affected in this way since they do not generally rely on benefits or social housing. And it is does not make sense that someone stealing a pair of trainers in the heat of the moment should be treated worse than those guilty of calculated fraud or brutality in non-riot related circumstances.

And collective punishment goes against the basic principles of justice. Some parents should indeed have taken more responsibility for the behaviour of their children, but others were struggling to cope at the best of times, sometimes dealing with chronic illness or the effects of domestic abuse. Some in social housing work long hours in low paid jobs to make ends meet and cannot afford a childminder to keep an eye on their children during the long school holidays.

What is the fitting punishment for a little boy whose older sibling was out stealing while he cowered at home listening to the frightening sounds outside? The terrorised girlfriend whose partner’s violent temper, which got him into trouble with the police, were all too often taken out on her behind closed doors? Or the mentally ill mother who on bad days can barely cope with getting out of bed, let alone keeping her restless teenagers under control? Harshly punishing whole families is not the best way to improve society.

A more measured approach is not only just and merciful, but also more likely to prevent further harm. In particular, the idea of restorative justice deserves to be revisited, if this might help repair fractured relationships and foster a sense of responsibility on those who wronged others during the rioting.


© Savi Hensman has lived in inner-city London for many years. She is an Ekklesia associate, a respected Christian commentator, and works in the care and equalities sector.

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