Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Stupidity and murder - where's the justice?

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 Richardson
12 January 2011
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  1. Dear John

    I think you'll find that a life sentence means that you are only let out on licence and can be recalled to prison at any time if considered a danger to the public.


  2. As you so rightly say, there appears to be no sort of balance in the type of sentences meted out for very disparate crimes.
    The Lawrence case is only one of many, where in the absence of the death sentence (thank heaven)
    lunatic leniency seems to have taken over from common sense.
    Of course the fire extinguisher incident had the potential to be fatal but was not, therefore a suspended sentence with jail as the reward for any further stupidity would surely have been sufficient.
    Until such time as a complete overhaul (not in my lifetime), of the judiciary/sentencing system happens, the law will remain, as it has always been, an ass!

  3. Tim, that doesn't seem to be very onerous!

  4. John,

    What a lot of interesting issues this raises.

    1. Your point about one crime equating to 1/5 the culpability of another shows the difficulty of any "years-in-prison" approach to crime and punishment. The Bible's approach to both eternal punishment and temporal criminal codes seems to be one of retribution where the punishment fits the crime: reject your Lord, be rejected by Him; take someone's life, lose your own; steal someone's property, repay it twice over etc. Now obviously there are lots of hermeneutical and theological debates to go through over application of OT Law etc, and Christians (and evangelicals) will fall on both sides, but surely such a principle provides a better starting point. How does any length of time in prison equate to rape, or theft, or fraudulent expenses claims?

    2. How much should the outcome of Mr Woollard's act determine his crime/punishment? Yes, English law distinguishes attempted murder from successful murder. Only Mr Woollard knows his intention (hopefully it wasn't murder), but to throw a fire extinguisher from a roof into a crowd of people has an entirely foreseeable potential of killing someone. He cannot claim to be ignorant of that. So his crime appears more than simple stupidity to me. He may not have intended personal injury, but he must have realised it was possible.

    PS, CS Lewis in his Perelandra trilogy brilliantly unmasks the failings of a humanist system which replaces retribution with 'rehabilitation' as the cornerstone of criminal policy.

  5. Agree with the thrust of your post John, there seems to be no logic to the sentencing policies being pursued by the judiciary at the moment.

    Regarding 'life sentence' I think you will find that a person so sentenced may be released after a period of time but should they breach the conditions of their release they could be recalled to prison. In other words they are released on license and their sentence has not expired, though they may have served a stipulated period in prison.

  6. Phil, I might be being a bit thick here, but I'm finding it hard to distinguish between a person who is out of prison 'on license', who would be returned if they breached the conditions of their release, and someone who has served a prison sentence but would, naturally, go back to prison if they subsequently broke the law again.

    In other words, it is hard (at least from my lay perspective) to see any substantial difference between a "life sentence" that only results in a short time in prison and a "short sentence" for the same crime.

  7. I suspect that, as with bail, parole conditions might tend to be more restrictive than mere adherence to legality. For instance, I could well envisage a paroled fraudster having his passport confiscated.

    Michael Canaris / Sydney

  8. A parole licence may contain conditions about all sorts of things, such as where and in what type of accommodation the parolee may live, with whom they may or may not associate, where they may or may not go, plus a requirement to report regularly to police and/or a parole officer. Breach of any of these conditions would be grounds for returning the person directly to prison without further judicial process (i.e. a trial, conviction and sentence) which would be required if the person were released unconditionally and then committed a subsequent crime.

  9. revsimmy and others are spot on. Breach of parole licence means you can be recalled to prison even though you haven't been convicted of a fresh crime. That's why parole works - it's not automatic, so it gives people in prison the hope of an early release for good behaviour. Once out, they have an incentive to behave themselves and work with parole officers to reintegrate into society, under threat of being locked up again. For a life sentence, that threat forever remains.

    More widely, sentencing is a very difficult subject. Regarding the fire extinguisher incident, I think rioting and public disorder crimes have normally been dealt with severely by the courts. Three years sounds about right to me, but then I'm no expert. I think he could get parole halfway through.

    I agree with John - the judicial system can't solve the problems of society - but are there any alternatives?

  10. I can detect a difference between:

    (a) the death penalty

    (b) spending the whole of your life in prison (which is what we though 'life imprisonment' meant when it was introduced)


    (c) spending nine years in prison in your teens and twenties and thereafter having to be under the supervision of parole officers, but being free to get on with and enjoy life provided they think you're fitting in well.

    Given the choice between (a), (b) and (c), which would most people find the least palatable?

    And compare (c) with eighteen months in prison for chucking a fire extinguisher off a roof.

    There is actually some interesting material on this on the HM Prisons website. Amongst other things I note,

    "... prisoners must serve a minimum period of imprisonment to meet the needs of retribution and deterrence. This punitive period is announced by the trial judge in open court and is known commonly as the “tariff” period.

    Release will only take place once this period has been served and the Parole Board is satisfied that the risk of harm the prisoner poses to the public is acceptable. This means that indeterminate sentence prisoners could remain in prison for many more years on preventative grounds after they have served the punitive period of imprisonment set by the trial judge."

    So on the one hand, the punitive and deterrent “tariff” for murder may actually be a period in single figures for a teenager - which seems bizarre. But once the set punishment has been served, that person may be kept in prison indefinitely on the say-so of a parole board because they might do something wrong, which seems unjust!

  11. In the UK justice system, I don't think life imprisonment has ever been understood to mean life without parole, other than in a small number of exceptional cases.

    On your final comment, I think you do the system a disservice. Parole boards have to make rational decisions based on the evidence before them, and these decisions can be challenged.