Thursday, July 03, 2008


A few days ago I had to tell a young man that he was going inside for his first custodial sentence. We sentenced him by the book, and we had a recent Court of Appeal ruling to guide us. The three of us on the bench were completely satisfied that custody was the only proper sentence, but we nevertheless ran through the structure one last time to be sure. We then wrote out our reasons, and called out the clerk to check the legals, and to alert the jailers to come up to the court door and await a signal to come in.
I told him crisply and factually that he was going into custody, and why. He looked impassive. His mother burst into tears and his father looked grim. The officers ushered him towards the steel staircase, and they will have handcuffed him as soon as the door shut behind them. As he went through the door he turned to me and spat out "Tosser!" in what he no doubt thought was a venomous fashion, his unaccustomed composure discarded. That night he would be in a reception cell, wondering fearfully how he would cope with his fellow inmates the next day. He wouldn't be calling any of them Tossers.
We did what we had to do, and I am completely comfortable that the sentence was right.

I didn't like it though.

It is an awesome thing to send a young man inside, especially for the first time. I accept the necessity of doing it when I have to, and I never shrink from the task when it is the right thing to do.
I can already hear the more punitive of our readers muttering "what about the victims?" and I want them to understand that to try to understand a criminal does not exclude sympathy for the victims - in fact, this particular sentence was driven mainly by the crime's impact on the victims.
So I felt a bit flat as I drove home. Intellectually, I was perfectly happy that we had done our duty. Personally, I felt a sense of waste, along with a not-too-sure hope that the boy might at last take a hint. Experience does not make me optimistic.

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