The principal cause of the riots in England that astonished the world (but not me) last year was revealed recently, when a man named Gordon Thompson was sentenced to 11 and a half years’ imprisonment at the Old Bailey for arson. That cause is the laxity of the British criminal-justice system.

It was Thompson who, last August, set fire to a family-owned furniture store in Croydon that had stood as a landmark for 140 years. The blaze spread quickly and people, some lucky to survive, had to be evacuated from nearby houses. The photo of a woman leaping from her window to escape the flames became for a time as emblematic of London as the Houses of Parliament.

Thompson, now 34, was heard to boast of his exploit immediately afterward; but, arraigned in court, he thought better of it and, through his lawyer, apologized to “everyone involved” but especially to the store’s owners.

I will leave it to others to speculate on how remorseful Thompson would have been had he not been caught. In extenuation, he said that he had felt depressed about the recent breakup of his marriage, which seems to be taking the concept of the nasty divorce a little far. It turns out that Thompson had 20 previous convictions, including at least one for violent robbery. Since the police in Britain discover the culprit in approximately 5.5 percent of crimes, and since the commission of crime is not distributed randomly across the population but concentrated in a relatively small proportion of it, a reasonable supposition is that Thompson—unless he was such an incompetent criminal that he was caught every time he offended—had actually committed between 100 and 400 crimes before he turned to arson.

What, you might ask, was such a man doing at liberty? Well, most importantly, he was providing a living for the lawyers who defended him when he was caught: he was what one might call a criminal Keynesian. And he was providing ammunition for penological liberals who argue that prison doesn’t work. After all, he had been to prison and still he set fire to the furniture store, endangering the lives of so many people! On this argument, of course, he shouldn’t be sent to prison even now, for it will not “cure” him of his “disease,” and he will learn nothing from it. Among the penological liberals, alas, are to be counted more than one chief justice and our current minister of justice (an Orwellian term unknown to British government until that of Prime Minister Blair): the consistently careerist Kenneth Clarke, who values his reputation with the Guardian, our principal liberal newspaper, more than he does the lives and property of the people of Croydon.

The Guardian, however, did quote the son of the owners of the burned-down store in its report of Thomson’s sentencing: “My father built that store up, that store was his baby. I lived there as a child, played there as a child, I lived there as an adult, I worked there most my adult life; when you lose something like that it’s like a bereavement.”

And they wonder why we’re conservative!


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