Sunday, November 20, 2011

This Is Making Us Look Silly

Once again the press is making a meal of the story that Charlie Gilmour, the spoilt brat student fun-revolutionary has been freed from a nominal 16 month prison sentence after about a quarter of the time pronounced by the judge.

There are plenty of papers and saloon-bar experts who love the chance to have a pop at the justice system ("You couldn't make it up" and so on). So why is nobody moving to address the absurdity of a judge or magistrate solemnly announcing a sentence that everybody knows will in effect be a fraction of what it purports to be?

A JP's maximum prison sentence in most circumstances is six months (26 weeks). If the offender pleads guilty, that will be reduced by a third to just over 17 weeks. Automatic release comes after halfway, leaving about eight and a half weeks to serve. Then, for the shorter sentences, comes release on Home Detention Curfew (a tag) halfway into that, at little over four weeks.

In the same way, the awesomely named 'Life' sentence means nothing of the sort except in a small number of cases. Now I have no problem with keeping sentences as short as practicable (subject to the need to incapacitate violent and dangerous offenders) but can't we come up with a nomenclature that doesn't patronise the public, and doesn't give rise to corrosive cynicism?

All of us who work in criminal justice have a duty to try to build and retain public confidence in what we do. Misleading sentences don't help.

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