Monday, February 22, 2010

Suspended Animation

If you have a crash on the driving test, I was told, no matter how much it wasn't your fault, you will be failed. Even if a drunk disqualified driver steals a fire-engine and clips your bumper while you're parallel parking - the only safe decision is to fail you.

The Magistrate appraisal system seems to be similar. You could be unlucky enough to get a highly emotional case and some highly annoying colleagues on assessment day. Under those circumstances, even the saintliest of Mags could be provoked into a reaction that causes the appraiser to flunk them. And it's unfair because many other appraisees would have had a perfectly straight-forward day.

This was in my mind before my recent appraisal : "Please don't make it complicated. Bit of traffic, bit of drink-related shoplifting and home for lunch".

Atheists are rotten at praying, so of course something complicated came up.

The case concerned a rather sad older man, who was making a honest but incompetent attempt to kick his drink habit. He had countless previous for petty crime, but his most recent transgression was a year ago when he received a prison sentence suspended for two years for domestic violence.

He was in court now for getting drunk and starting a fight in a bus station.

Had it been a first offence it would probably be a matter of a fine and some unpaid work, but he had committed this offence when this suspended sentence was hanging over his head. This could make it a much more serious matter - we could decide to activate the custodial sentence he got last time and send him to prison.

Well, my opinion was that his "last chance" was one year ago and that yes, he should go to prison now. My appraiser and the chairman took the opposing view that it would be better for him to continue on his various drink/violence programs and to give him some unpaid work for this latest offence.

It did cross my mind that maybe I shouldn't be awkward during an appraisal and just nod along, but happily I took no notice of those voices and made a polite, assertive, utterly doomed attempt to get my point of view across. To the credit of my colleagues they behaved in a totally professional manner and after a short debate, I conceded that in this chap's case, we could construct a non-custodial punishment. The debate was constructive and friendly and even though my opinion didn't prevail, I didn't feel that I had "lost".

My general opinion though is that violating a suspended sentence order should lead to immediate custody in the majority of cases. Otherwise, what's the point ? I understand that immediate custody would not have been the best thing for the offender, but what about the victim of the original domestic violence and the people he assaulted more recently ?


Conor said...

"continue on his various drink/violence programs"
They haven't had much effect so far, have they?

Stan said...

That was part of my argument at the time, but everybody has different answers to the question "How many chances does someone get ?". In my view though, there's only one answer to "How how many last chances does someone get?"

phatboy said...

As a defence lawyer, I agree with you.

If you breach a court order then you clearly aren't going to obey a future order and so should go to prison.

There are some cases where this is inappropriate but not many.