In the last couple of months there have been a number of incidents, both in Britain and abroad, of political intervention in the sentencing process. Some of the most radical examples of this include doubling the sentence of a woman who stabbed a paedophile to death, and the waiving of another woman’s sentence for killing her abusive husband.
The case of the woman who had her sentence waived is one from France. After years of abuse by her husband, including abuse of their daughters too, the woman snapped and killed him. I would never argue that such a woman shouldn’t be shown compassion but my instinct would be for the circumstances of the case to be raised during the trial, and the degree of leniency shown in compassion decided upon by the judge who presides over that trial. If an unduly harsh sentence is imposed, that is what appeals are for. In this case, it was not an appeal which enabled the woman to walk free. It was intervention by President Hollande.
Meanwhile, on this side of the channel, a convicted paedophile was housed on an estate in London where, before long, local boys began to report fresh complaints against him. A local mother snapped and stabbed him to death before confessing to what she had done. The judge gave her a sentence of three and a half years for manslaughter. However, Attorney General Jeremy Wright referred the case back to the court of appeal because he argued that the sentence was unduly lenient. The court of appeal reconsidered the sentence and replaced it with one of seven and a half years because the woman had taken a knife to the scene intending to cause serious harm to the man. But again, these are things which were raised at trial and heard by the sentencing judge who considered them fully before imposing the original sentence. Political intervention by Jeremy Wright, appointed by the prime minister, is unnecessary and inappropriate.
Sentencing should never be based upon politics. It should be based upon law alone, applied by the presiding judge, after full consideration of all the circumstances of the case raised during trial. This is especially the case since, if a prisoner receives an excessive sentence, the process for appeal is a long and arduous one, which demands strong grounds for appeal rather than a mere referral by someone who disagrees with the sentencing judge. If that is how we handle efforts by defence teams to address unduly harsh sentences, then why should the process be any different for prosecutors in their efforts to address what they see as unduly lenient sentences? Surely the same rules should apply to both sides.
But these are just two of the most recent examples of political interference in due process. There was a time when MPs would never even dream of talking about criminal trials before they are ruled upon for fear of being accused of attempting to bias either the verdict or the sentence. Not so any more. During a recent prosecution of staff working for Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust for manslaughter, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, posted a tweet saying that the trial was a “tragic case from which huge lessons must be learned”. The judge in the case ordered that the tweet be removed immediately and labelled it “highly inappropriate”. But why should this be such a problem? Partly because the tweet presumed that, somewhere along the line, there had been some wrongdoing. That is indeed highly inappropriate given that those on trial were eventually found not guilty and acquitted.
Similarly, Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had his wrists slapped recently for phoning Peter Clarke and Glenys Stacey about becoming the next chief inspectors of prisons and probation prior to the positions even being advertised. The Justice Select Committee rebuked Gove and said that his actions could cast doubt on the inspectors’ independence. Peter Clarke and Glenys Stacey have indeed since been appointed to the posts.
If politicians don’t trust the independent appointment of prison and probation watchdogs, the sentencing decisions of experienced judges, or even the due process of a criminal prosecution absent from political intervention, then why should the rest of us trust these things? I do indeed doubt the independence of the inspectors. I doubt the decisions of most judges at one time or another. And (after my own experiences of trial) I certainly doubt whether they are conducted fairly. But I do not think that the solution is to ask politicians to step in. If anything, that just makes me trust such things even less.