The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

My Photo
Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Tricky Balancing Act

This case, as reported in the Telegraph raises a lot of questions, and has made me think for a bit about the general principle of imprisoning parents (almost always women, but this case proves that it happens to men too).

Of course the heavy-duty indictable offences are so serious that those convicted of them will go to prison, family or no family. The 95% of offences that are dealt with by magistrates are another matter. We send relatively few people to prison, and not for very long (the de facto maximum is a matter of six or eight weeks). I first thought hard about this when we had to sentence a young mother who led a lifestyle of serial drink and drug use, multiple partners, and repeated shoplifting, but no convictions for violence. She had been given, and breached, most community penalties, and was well and truly in the frame for a custodial sentence, even by our latest 'must follow' guidelines. My colleagues and I read the reports, and following the approved structured sentencing exercise decided that she had crossed the custody threshold. But what were we about to do? The woman richly deserved to be punished, but her children didn't. Young children need parents, especially their mother, and the disruption to their lives even with a short absence was something we were anxious to avoid if at all possible. An unstable childhood is so often the precursor to a life of adult crime, and a depressingly high proportion of offenders have a history of fostering or council care.
Plenty of people will say "she should have thought about the kids before she committed the offences". So she should, but she did not.
The judge in the case quoted above has come in for a lot of stick over his decision, and today's 'Mail' has weighed in with some more (by the way, why is the paper publishing full-face unpixellated pictures of the kids? They are innocent parties to the whole business, as much victims as the people burgled by their father).
There isn't an easy answer to this one. Nobody wants to see criminals unpunished, but nor is it in society's interests to carry on with the vicious circle of disruption and crime experienced in so many disorganised and unstable families.