The ‘lawless’ actually crave rules

Simon Jebreel

The MoJ released interesting figures last month outlining the numbers of prior offences held by arrested rioters. Most headlines highlighted the fact that 25% of the rioters had ten previous offences, but what caught my eye was the statistic that one in twenty of the rioters had over fifty offences under their belt (by the way, it’s worth noting that these figures are actually lower than those for arrests made under normal circumstances, for which the proportions are closer to 40% and 12%). I found 50 prior offences a mind boggling figure, which pointed beyond the usual discussions about the effectiveness of prison, to a deeper question of “what is going on in these people’s lives?

I think part of the answer is reflected in a curious phenomenon I noticed when I was a teacher (through Teach First) in an inner-city London school. After the kids had left school at 16, we often found that those who came back the most to visit the school were the very kids who had behaved the worst when at school. On reflection, the reason for this strange result was clear – these kids lived such chaotic home lives that school had been their oasis of structure. School gave them the predictability and consistency that a person needs in order to have agency and a coherent identity, and when they had frequently pushed the boundaries it was partly to get the reassurance that those boundaries were still there. As much as they ‘hated’ school, it was a safe and comforting place.

Our expert on offenders at Shaftesbury, Rob Fitzpatrick, tells me that the same is happening with many of those in the 50-offences-plus category. Prison is their oasis of structure, where the rules of the game are clear and they can be confident of their place in the order of things. This insight runs through a number of our ventures. In Opportunity Unlocked, Rob is leading the design of an intermediary to support ex-offenders into real work, so that when they leave the predictability of prison and get thrust back into the chaotic world, they have a structured and purposeful way of re-engaging with society. Meanwhile, our Looking Up venture will be an innovative intervention for adults with complex needs (whose situation has been highlighted by David Cameron after the riots, and who probably account for almost all of those who end up with 50 offences), which uses a trusted adult to bring coherence and structure to their often chaotic access of services.

This impact of a lack of structure is reflected in a number of groups we are looking to serve across our ventures. One community that all-too-often ends up in these groups – offending, homeless, or with mental health issues – is that of ex-armed forces personnel. Another of our ventures, FranchisingWorks, is looking at how it can support this community (alongside the many others it serves) by helping them to set up businesses through franchising. Our belief is that a franchise would provide them with the rules, processes and systems to give them the comfort they need after leaving the highly structured world of the armed forces.

The riots shocked us all largely because so much disregard was shown for what society at large considers to be ‘the rules’. But like all people, those at the margins of our society do actually crave the coherence and predictability that is given by a rule structure. They may need us to help provide this for them.

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