Theodore Dalrymple: Leniency and Its Costs
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.