I have no embarrassment in declaring myself one of those who thinks that our judicial system exacerbates many of our social problems by being ‘soft’ on criminals. (I seem to remember, incidentally, that CS Lewis once wrote an essay, which must have been about sixty years ago, lamenting the same thing after some boys were apprehended for vandalizing his shed.)
You might think, then, I would be rejoicing that Edward Woollard, the 18-year old student who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof of 30 Millbank during the tuition fees protests last year, had received a jail sentence of two years and eight months.
On the contrary, I think it simply illustrates (and exacerbates) the problem. For in the same edition of the Daily Mail in which we can read about Woollard’s situation, we also see that Learco Chindamo, the man convicted of murdering headteacher Philip Lawrence, may have to serve an extra two years in jail over an alleged mugging he committed shortly after his release.
Now of course Chindamo may be entirely innocent in this instance. That is not the point that concerns me and will doubtless concern others. Rather it is the difficulty many of us outside the system have in making sense of the policy involved in such sentencing.
To begin with, Chindamo, was given what was described as a “life sentence” for a murder which the judge at the time described as “futile and un- provoked”. (Readers may recall that Lawrence stepped in to protect another boy being attacked by Chindamo and others.)
The first difficulty, then, is with this term “life sentence”. This is not simply a false expression, it is disingenuous, for it gives the impression of doing something that is not the case. ‘Life’ for a teenager does not consist of ‘the next fourteen years’ — indeed that doesn’t really begin to apply until you hit your sixties, and yet ‘life’ sentences continue to be given out to people considerably younger than myself.
Indeed, I suspect some research would show that the term “life sentence” is a hangover from the debate about abolishing the death penalty, when it was used as a justifying argument in favour of abolition: those who previously would have been executed would instead receive a “life sentence”. Now we know this is not true, we should surely drop the pretence.
Secondly, however, one cannot help comparing 14 years for murder with almost 3 years for throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof.
And here I would want to come to Mr Woollard’s defence. Of course what he did was wrong — and not just the throwing of the fire extinguisher, but the invasion of the building in the first place. However, it would appear to have been an act of monumental stupidity, not viciousness. Yes, people could have been killed, but they were not. Had they been, it would have been different, but that is surely to the point.
Most importantly of all, however, I would refer to the words of the judge who handed out the sentence:
... the courts have a duty to provide the community with such protection from violence as they can and this means sending out a very clear message to anyone minded to behave in this way that an offence of this seriousness will not be tolerated.
I could not agree more with the first part of this sentence. But I cannot see that a stupid act which might have killed someone equates mathematically to one fifth of the culpability of killing one person in the process of carrying out a gang attack on another — which is roughly the proportionality of the sentences in these two cases.
As a layman in these matters, I nevertheless feel that either Mr Chindamo has been treated too leniently or Mr Woollard too harshly. Either way, my confidence in the judicial system to remedy the problems of our society remains low.
John R RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
12 January 2011
12 January 2011