The Politicisation of Imprisonment

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.

9 thoughts on “The Politicisation of Imprisonment

  1. I am afraid I disagree with you on this one Adam. I don’t trust any of them. But politicians are elected and are paid to look into the issues of their constituents. The judicial system makes many mistakes but will not correct as they will not accept that they make mistakes. Ordinary people will be crushed underneath them if they are not allowed to assisted by their local MPs. The presumption of innocence has been removed from HSA cases, beyond reasonable doubt has been removed and the accuser must be beleived. As a result there are many innocent people sitting in cells convicted of imaginary heinous crimes. It is a national scandal and needs to be corrected and mistakes rectified. Without MPs how would we do this? All journalists wish to do is sell papers. They are not required to tell the truth and just write stories to sell papers. This media has created a MOB. People actually beleive these stories without Evidence. This is why Evidence with corroboration counts. Juries are convicting without evidence, so they are guessing. Statements like “he looks guilty” are convicting innocent people and destroying their families and lives. So I am sorry Adam I don’t agree with you, this time.

    • Nothing wrong with disagreement, it’s far more fun than concensus. However, whilst politicians are elected, they tend not to listen to the electorate (take the Iraq war for example). As you say, there are many innocent people in prison, but when was the last time you heard of any of them being granted a pardon by a politician? The only people who free those who are innocent are the judiciary on appeal. The best example of widescale political interference in sentencing is in the United States where the President may pardon a certain number of prisoners upon leaving office. In the main it is used to the benefit of people like guilty financial fraudsters who ripped off millions but donate large sums to political parties. Some justice.

  2. On the other hand leaving sentencing to judges alone who do not sentence objectively a lot of the time but bring their own prejudices to the sentencing table is not necessarily a good thing either. And for that matter the jury system where laymen are asked to decide on cases where they simply do not understand complex evidence also gives rise to very flawed verdicts. And don’t get me started on the system being skewed in favour of the prosecution

    • True, judges are biased and jury trials are hardly reliable. However, politicians are no less biased – more so in most cases – and at least judges have legal training. I’m not saying that judges don’t make mistakes, I know from experience that they frequently do. However if politicians do not agree in a lawfully imposed sentence then they should tighten the sentencing guidelines to prevent future sentences being unduly harsh/lenient. If the sentence is really wrong then failing to do this simply creates further victims of poor sentencing. On the other hand, if the sentence is fine, then political interference is an unjustified attempt to win popularity points.

  3. I am rather puzzled as to why you felt qualified to pass judgement on two actual cases, one in a foreign country, presumably based on what you have read in the press, and yet condemn the attorney general, a lawyer in possession of all the facts, for referring a case to the court of appeal. He didn’t judge it, he referred it, just as the lady concerned, if she felt her sentence to be unduly harsh, could have appealed.

    Justice and politics have always been intertwined. If someone out on licence commits a particularly heinous crime, a rarity, then the mob will start baying for blood – the honour of leading the mob these days going to certain sections of the press, as opposed to a bunch of old hags with knitting needles – and at such a time the politicians will be obliged to come up with some sort of panacea in order to cover their own backsides; the covering of backsides is of course what politics has always been about.

    To a lesser extent, your own case has a political element. If my memory serves me correctly, the judge who sentenced you was mindful to impose a term of something in the region of seven years but was persuaded, either by you or your brief, to halve it. However, as there was always a risk that you might do something very naughty when you got out, he made sure of covering his own judicial hindquarters by passing the buck and leaving the ultimate decision of your release to somebody else – and all those somebody-elses are all still passing that particular buck.

    In view of your own experience, I am impressed by your continued faith in judges.

    • You’re right that I don’t have any right to judge either of the cases I referred to. My intention was to hold them up as recent examples of what I am actually talking about, rather than simply referring to the general theory of political intervention without any reference to real life. Whilst I have my (biased) opinion, I don’t know enough about the specifics of either case to pass judgement on the people involved. I do, however, have a view on the underlying principle of political intervention in the judiciary and it is this that I aim to share in the post.
      With regard to my own case, you are only partially correct, no-one argued for the judge to halve my sentence at all. It is standard procedure in sentencing that when the judge imposes a life sentence they will award a minimum tariff equivalent to one half of what the sentence would have been if a life sentence were not imposed. In my case the judge did indeed impose a life sentence in order to ensure that I would be released only when rehabilitated (plus some now I would argue). However, this was not passing the buck away from the judiciary. The only people who have the power to order my release are the parole board and each and every parole panel I appear before will be chaired by a judge. As for having faith in judges despite my own case, I have very little faith in judges. I just have even less faith in politicians.

  4. I’ll take it as a compliment to my powers of recall that I was partially correct about something I read on my smart phone well over a year ago. I did try to check your original blog page before writing the comment but was unable to locate it in the time available. I also plead guilty to dodgy syntax, having had no intention of suggesting that either you or your counsel “asked” for your sentence to be halved. I think perhaps your phrase “the other sentence the judge said he was considering” must have lodged in a prominent position in my memory, whilst the uncertainties concerning your mental state at the time did not. Thus, I incorrectly assumed that the judge’s sentencing was influenced by the usual factors: the image you presented in court and statements made on your behalf.

    However, having spent longer trawling your blog than I did in writing the original comment, I finally managed to locate the relevant page – and a veritable can of worms it has turned out to be (though an impressive piece of writing). Your offence was obviously a great deal more serious than I’d realised, and with none of the experts able to agree on your true mental condition I can fully understand why the judge had to pass the buck, because that is exactly what your account consists of, one long saga of buck passing; although, a more suitable metaphor might be pass-the-parcel (ref Alex Cavendish’s human warehousing) with an element of Kafka. But it was ever thus, and I had a certain feeling of deja vu while reading it: the Officer Krupke song in WEST SIDE STORY.

    To sum it up, you are a parcel that will not fit in any of the pigeon holes, and every time someone is handed the responsibility of making a decision they pass the parcel – you only ended up in Frankland because all the Cat C prisons contacted refused to accept delivery of the parcel. The judge having been the first person to pass the parcel – after the mind doctors had finished playing musical chairs – the next person called upon to make a major decision was the psychologist at young offenders, who promptly passed the parcel to a PCL-r test – and the parcel has been going round and round ever since, though you do seem to have done your own fair share of parcel pushing.

    As you point out, the final destination of the parcel will depend upon the Parole Board, where to quote one member (who shows a preference for the buck metaphor), “The problem is that if we release someone and something goes wrong – if an offender we release kills someone – the buck stops with us. It was our decision. It was our call.” That sounds a touch political in the sense I was employing it, as does “Despite their desire to be liberal and pro-release, Matthew said the statistics prove that panel members unconsciously reflect increasingly risk-adverse public attitudes” also sound a wee bit political. Though, I freely admit to stretching the meaning of the word political almost to breaking point.

    For the record, the above quotes came from a 2010 article in the Guardian that I happened to stumble upon, along with a few other interesting bits and pieces about the Parole Board – which in its present NDPD form is not yet completely out of the clutches of the politicians (according to Justice).

    • I’m not sure of the reasoning behind your assertion that I have done my own fair share of parcel pushing but, other than that, agreed.

  5. I did not make an assertion. And just to make sure I didn’t, I’ve even gone so far as to haul out what is laughingly referred to as the Shorter Oxford – like the best china, only brought out on special occasions – in order to make sure I hadn’t done so.

    However, I have read once again the saga of the parcel that refuses to fit in a pigeon hole. And whilst I do not have sufficient information to make an assertion, the impression I get is of a bunch of people who were trying to do a lousy job made much more difficult by the politicians in power cutting budgets to the bone.

    Quote: “In other words, they didn’t want to pay a psychologist to sit with a single prisoner when they could keep that psychologist on group courses with twelve prisoners and get value for money.” May I pose a hypothetical question, and I emphasise the word hypothetical: if that was all the money that happened to be available, thanks to the politicians, should they have kicked the other eleven guys off the course and concentrated all their resources on you?

    As to when you seem to have started pushing the parcel, I get the impression that it began shortly after arriving at Frankland when you appear to have tried to hurry your own parcel along. Quote: “Immediately I submitted an application to the psychology department asking if I could begin the one to one work immediately and whilst still awaiting transfer to a lower category prison so that I could demonstrate some of the change I had made”. To borrow one of your metaphors, it may have proved to have been a sliding door moment because it forced them to take a decision that “made you livid” and was to have unfortunate consequences, as it was your refusal to take part in the prescribed DSPD that seems to have started the parcel pushing between the two sides, and since then, every time they push DSPD to you, you seem to push it back – though I am not suggesting that you were wrong in doing so, only that you appear to have given a good account of yourself in the pushing stakes.

    But let me emphasize that these are merely my impressions, and I would certainly not have brought them to light if I had not been obliged to do so by you. As Sherlock Holmes would always put it, I have insufficient data.

    Disclaimer: the words, appear, impression and seem to, merely portray vague possibilities and do not constitute assertions and should not be taken as such.

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