Saturday, 16 July 2011

Liberalism and sentencing

The problem with the Charlie Gilmour conviction, for those that support and take part in UKUncut, is that he's probably the best example of someone actually genuinely deserving of a punishment. His actions (and those like him) made young people look bad, they undermined the efforts of the protestors, they strengthened the defence for what was a shambolic and dangerously organised police force, caused very real damage, targeted the head of state's son, was allegedly uncontrollable while on intoxicating substances, and (if we believe one Lib Con commentator) clearly didn't care much whether he did real serious harm to the police either.

Yet he was standing on the side of UKUncut, and they as well as their supporters seem unable of accepting that people on their side need to be punished any more than those on the right wing press and in the government wish to accept that the authorities acted out of line. It's blatant and disgraceful hypocrisy.

So of course, it seems, the only action is to try and claim that it is perfectly acceptable to do such things, as long as it is in the face of the state authorities...that "he didn't really hurt anyone" and that therefore his actions should be ignored. The stance seems to be as socialists (ironically) and as liberals we should just let it slide.

But the law is a liberal tool as much as an authoritarian one. Charlie and his fellow protestors may not have actually hurt the Royals in their car that day, not physically, but psychologically they clearly had some effect. This is just as relevant when it comes to the intimidation effect that violence can have when perpetrated by any side. But a different object picked up, a different direction thrown, the result could have been very different.

The law rightfully chooses to condemn actions and intentions, not outcomes. The kid that threw a fire extinguisher off the roof of a building, narrowly missing a police officer, was charged not for "almost killing someone", but for doing something that was clearly extremely dangerous, regardless of how likely it was to injure anyone. (Though I will come to Woollard's charge shortly)

So if it is perfectly liberal to accept that charges are right to be brought, for the purpose of the protection of other people's liberties, is it liberal to suggest that the sentences that they also carry are fair?

Ultimately this isn't a question of liberalism, but of logic and realism. The realities are that judges have a good idea about where their sentences need to start from and for what reasons. Previous examples of sentencing may help to give context to that judge. As such it's unlikely for a judge to ever give a suspended sentence, or a community sentence, to someone who has done something that (under the law) is just as serious as someone that got jailed traditionally for the same level of activity.

Indeed, the point I raised wasn't that the sentence itself was the best type of sentence that could be handed down, or that I agree with how the law of violent disorder is sentenced; it was to point out that claims that the sentence was politically motivated, or that it was inflated unfairly, as I was reading by various UKUncut supporters yesterday on Twitter, is a nonsense point of view to take.

It's just diresepectful and false to claim that this sentence is anything other than what someone else doing the same thing outside of a protest would have also got.

I guess this is where those people are getting their panties in a twist, they can't quite make out the difference between understanding that due process has been carried out fairly, and understanding that a sentence range for a particular crime might not be the right punishment.

This is where nuance is needed. Mr Woollard, who threw the fire extinguisher off the roof of a building, showed real remorse for his actions...acted in the heat of the moment...he was stupid but he was not violent. He is actually, in my mind, the victim of being the first and most public figure in this situation; as such I am not surprised but am saddened he was found guilty of his charge of violent disorder.

So in this case I feel that the sentence is out of step with reality, that Mr Woollard's intentions have not been adequately considered. I hope that an appeal will go ahead, and I hope that at the very least he has his sentence drastically reduced now that the public furore has died down, if not his charge over turned completely.

The other person charged by the same judge presiding over Charlie Gilmour's case, who threw sticks at the police, was on the other hand clearly violent. However my view on his sentence would vary depending on the situation. Was this person kettled when he was acting violently? Was his throwing of things at the police only something he did in one incident (as long as that incident spanned)? Did he come to the protest without the intention of fighting the police? If the answer to all of these is yes then I feel that not enough of a mitigating factor is made of how police provoked such reactions. If the answer to any is no, then his sentence starts to becomes more reasonable, though in my view suspending it if he is a first time offender would make the most sense from a liberal stand point.

Which brings us to Charlie. We know that in the situations he was being charged for he was not provoked, we know he went from one incident to the other with ample opportunity to "calm down", we also know that he was under the influence of serious drugs which is never going to work to your favour (nor should it) in sentencing. But again, prison is unlikely to really serve anyone involved with the best outcome. To be humbled by the process of publicly being dragged through the courts is likely to be enough, a suspended sentence to keep you under control for a while a good chance to reflect on how to not let your fellow protestors down in the future.

As a liberal I will question the public need for bringing some of these convictions, and I'll always question in a more wider sense whether the sentencing is appropriate for the crimes in modern day Great Britain, but liberalism doesn't even come in to the subject of whether or not due process, with all of the rules it has to abide by, has been carried out properly. Illiberal for saying that following a fairly transparent procedure is the right thing to do? Please...