At a certain point, any civilised society should ask itself what the purpose of the justice system is - rehabilitation, or revenge? So many of the dominant Western countries, though, seem excessively confused on this simple question. I suspect that most clashes over the relative length of prison sentences arise over a difference of opinion here. Personally, it seems to me that the only rational answer in both a social and a financial sense is that it should be for rehabilitation, but lawmakers tend to consider the general population to be a bloodthirsty lot - often not without reason. And it's far easier to appear to be tough on crime by increasing punishments than to fix the problems before the crimes happen.
When I was a small child, I read a lot, and learned somewhere that in about the 1600s in London, you could be executed for stealing a shilling. Now, I don't think that that was the norm. Sure, it probably happened, especially if the thief happened to belong to a minority that was not socially acceptable at the time, but I don't think the big book of law and punishments actually listed execution as a stock standard sentence for that crime. But that leads to the question: In 500 years, what will children learn about us?
It's not just the riots in the UK, though John Cameron's talk about having offenders evicted and cutting benefits to all of them, not just those jailed, as well as targeting families, is pretty disturbing. Especially when you consider that there have been people arrested for stealing not just minor items, but minor items generally classified as necessities (and in at least one case for receiving a minor item). As media becomes more personalised with the internet, as economies become more and more divisive and unequal, there have been an awful lot of pretty disturbing stories about the punishments poor people have been getting. Among some highly publicised ones have been a man stealing $1 from a bank to get healthcare in jail, another stealing $100 to get into detox, then feeling remorseful and turning himself in and being hit with a fifteen year sentence, at least two homeless mothers claiming a false address to get their children into school who apparently need to be made examples of - how dare they think children are entitled to an education? - and, somewhat related, mothers having newborn babies being taken away after eating poppy seeds skewed the results of the "standard" opiate tests given to women giving birth in Philidelphia. (I don't mean to pick on the US with these - because it's so dominant and has such a large population, most of the most publicised cases tend to come from there. Certainly the class warfare in other countries is often just as bad.)
Put simply, most criminals are not exactly ruthless sociopaths. The risk of reoffending for a huge number of them is actually ridiculously low, especially once they've been faced with jail and thus been shown that their actions are taken seriously. Some people do need to be put away for life, of course; Clayton Weatherston, for example, is highly unlikely to ever be safely released, based on his behaviour during the trial which seemed to show a massive disconnect between reality and how he viewed it. But for others, the risk of reoffending only exists because they are forced to it - while for some who never see the inside of a police station, let alone jail, the risk of reoffending is extremely high because society will tolerate criminal behaviour, as long as it doesn't step outside acceptable lines. Date rape? Totally okay. Business fraud on a massive scale? Not exactly desirable, but you're such a nice white man, so prominent in the community, so you just get a slap on the wrist. Forcing people to acknowledge poverty? LOCK THAT SHIT DOWN. And dear god, don't even think about daring to be poor if you're black!