A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

So No-one Got A Maximum Sentence. Get Over It.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order on September 15, 2010 at 11:20 pm

By Stephen Wan

Part of September’s Law And Order Series

Every now and then, I read an article in a newspaper that really riles me up. What I particularly hate is when they use statistics in some really quite awful ways to draw certain conclusions which, quite frankly, I don’t share, but which they seem to presume everyone should. Usually its something from the Sun, or the Mirror, or some other tabloid with certain political prejudices that pamper to their readers. Unfortunately, this “statistic bashing” also seems to occasionally affect the ‘quality’ press, something that deeply worries me.

There are two articles in question, both of which are from The Daily Telegraph. The first is entitled “Revealed: Not A Single Burglar Gets Maximum Jail Sentence”. The second is called “Only Criminals Have Respect For Lenient Judges”. Guess what slant the Telegraph was going for.

For those of you who can’t guess from the titles, Ministry of Justice statistics have revealed that pretty much no-one has received any of the maximum jail sentences available for certain crimes. Whilst I have no idea where the idea of maximum jail sentences came from (perhaps someone can enlighten me, I know the Labour government introduced a lot of minimum sentences for certain crimes), it is apparently shocking, wrong, and shows how we’re weak on crime – and in particular, how bad our judicial system is for having such liberal and lenient judges on the bench.

I want to tackle these articles in several ways.

Firstly, I would like all to be reminded of the value of judicial independence. Believe it or not, we actually quite want an independent judiciary. That means we have judges that are not influenced or controlled by the government, or the media for that matter. Both Dixon and Davies in the first article imply heavily (without saying it), that the government should pretty much force the judges to give out harsher sentences; I would say that giving the government any sort of power over the judges is another step into the creation of an authoritarian government, which would be bad for all sorts of reasons (lack of proper governmental scrutiny, loss of checks and balances, positive virtues of the separation of powers). But worse of all is the Telegraph View, that “…ultimately, it is the people, not the judges, who are sovereign”. Ok, so I guess that means if the “people” wanted to go lynch a man who they thought might have committed a crime, but had no evidence for it, they can go do so because they’re “sovereign” and all that? Thankfully, there are judicial processes that prevent that, and sovereignty rests not in the people, but in the rights of the individual which the judiciary is sworn to protect against the over-mighty power of the majority.

Secondly, I would like to remind all that it is all very well looking at statistics, but that is not what judges do; instead, they look at things through a case by case basis in order to take in particular circumstances. Sometimes, this might mean the judges hand out excessive amounts of punishment, sometimes it might mean they hand out nothing more than a slap of the wrist. What is guaranteed (mostly) is that the judge will base you on your circumstances, not some quota put into law forcing you to serve a disproportionate amount of time. The alternative that the Telegraph et al seem to suggest is having some sort of quota ensuring a certain number of people receive the far end of the scale; maybe the worst 10% of criminals get the worst punishment possible every year? A very fine idea, unless you’re unlucky enough to be caught doing a minor theft towards the end of the year, whose punishment should be community service, but end up doing the 10 years reserved for drug dealers and repeat offending robbers. Besides, quotas for the number of people being caught and sentenced for certain crimes? As much as I hate to make the Association Fallacy, the parallels with Stalin in the 1930s are almost too good not to mention.

Thirdly, there is a horrible assumption here that prison works, which I thought in this day and age was gone alongside the belief that the Sun goes around the Earth. For some reason, the quote that “Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse” comes to mind. There aren’t many Conservative politicians I like, but I respect Douglas Hurd for saying that, because he was so very right. Whilst prison serves a primary purpose of quarantine, that is, keeping people away from society so as not to commit more crimes i.e. for the general safety of the public, and this certainly works, the other aim of preventing re-offending by deterrence or rehabilitation clearly does not. And then we can ask the question, “Would society be safer by locking all the bad people up, or by getting the bad people to stop being bad before they get worse?”. If the former, feel free to build about a million more prison places (I hear Australia still has a few places). If the latter, maybe its time for newspapers like the Telegraph to stop making the simplistic assumption that prison is the best solution, and start thinking about giving a properly thought-out article that looks at several interpretations of the same data. Leave the shamelessly opinionated pieces to bloggers like us.

  1. Maximum sentences are intended to protect those convicted from the whims of a draconian judge, by ensuring nobody is jailed for an unreasonably long time.

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