Sunday, January 02, 2011

How to make £2000 a day or £1 a day in prison

I'm a Maths graduate who qualified as an accountant who now makes his crust crunching big data sets for complicated companies. Give me numbers and I'm a happy man.

Well, I was until I became a Magistrate.

A few months ago we saw a farmer who had broken all kinds of environmental legislation the previous year by burying asbestos, spent uranium and kryptonite in his cow field (only a slight exaggeration). He had been heavily fined - then had stopped paying - threatened with prison - started paying again - stopped paying - threatened with prison - continued not to pay - given a final warning - didn't pay - sent to prison.

We sent him down for 12 weeks, a sentence which effectively wiped out the £100,000+ in fines and compensation he still had to pay. He'll likely only do six weeks, which means that every day inside would be equivalent to over £2,000.

Fastforward to more recent events and we have a drug addict with over 200 previous shoplifting offences who walked out of a supermarket with £24 worth of meat under his jacket. Over the previous few decades Magistrates had tried on him just about all the punishments and education programmes in the book - all had failed and the last half dozen times all that was left was the sort of short jail sentence the current Justice Minister hates us using (but not enough to change the law to stop us).

We were no different from our predecessors and we sent him down for 8 weeks - which if we assume he does half, means that his £24 of bacon cost him roughly 24 days of custody.

Unfair comparison ? To make it "fair" should we have given the farmer 460 years? Alternatively, should we could have sent the meat thief down for 17 minutes ?

There's a point there somewhere about how you drive yourself crazy trying to compare sentences given for different crimes to different criminals. The world of The Law is very different from the world of Logic and Reason - it has built up over time, cares too much about some behaviours and not enough about others, is inconsistent and frequently contradictory.

But I'm increasingly in awe of it - imagine a world without Law - a world where there's nothing to stop farmers from poisoning rivers and drug addicts from stripping the shelves bare. There are a few thousand things I'd change if I ever got elected to something though.

Vote Stan.


MrD said...

Not sure why he wasn't fined more or sent to the Crown Court for sentence or at least given 6 months. In any event, doesn't he still remain liable to pay any compensation on release?

Stan said...

It's a while back now but no, the custody effectively replaced the financial penalty. His original crime was triable only in the Magistrates Court, so the Crown Court wasn't an option.

We decided fining the guy more was an exercise in futility - I don't want to get into detail but his default was blatant and sustained over a period of years - he more than earned himself a custodial sentence.