Rough Justice?

Is society best served by locking away so many criminals? Dave Woodhall argues not.

If pushed to describe where I stand, I’d say I was at the liberal side of the law and order spectrum. I believe prevention is far better than cure, and to that end it’s healthier to get people into the frame of mind where they don’t want to break the law rather than have them afraid of the consequences for doing so. I’m never happy about the idea that anyone should be guided by fear, and I think more harm than good can be done by stigmatising a petty offender just to appease the tabloid headline writers. Justice is never served by reacting to outside influences – the recent four year terms handed out to the Facebook non-rioters being a case in point.

Internet crimes seem to be regarded especially seriously lately, as yesterday’s case of Sean Duffy showed. Duffy admitted offences under the Malicious Communications Act following messages he posted on memorial sites to four recently-deceased teenagers, including Natasha MacBryde from Bromsgrove. It was a particularly nasty thing to do, and the initial reaction might be that Duffy must be sick to trawl the internet committing such acts towards people he had never known. And you’d be right – the court heard how Duffy, who had previously been cautioned for a similar offence – suffers from alcohol problems and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

You might think, as I do, that he deserves to be punished, and also that the best chance of Duffy not re-offending would be for him to receive treatment as part of his sentence. But do you really think the best place for him to receive this would be behind bars? Because Sean Duffy, with no previous convictions, was sentenced to sixteen weeks in prison for the offence to which he pleaded guilty. I doubt he’ll receive the medical attention he needs while he serves his sentence and I wonder how the additional five year ban on using social networking sites imposed by the courts can be enforced, particularly bearing in mind advances in technology that will take place during this time.

All things being equal, Duffy will be released from prison in a couple of months. His incarceration will have cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds (it was said by the Prison Reform Trust in 2010 that keeping a prisoner in jail then cost £41,000 per year). Once he’s out he’ll find it hard to get a job. He’ll be ostracised by what you and I might call ‘decent’ folk. He’ll run the risk of being drawn back towards the criminal fraternity, and of re-offending.

Sean Duffy may have committed some nasty crimes (although seemingly not so bad that the Birmingham Mail and other media outlets couldn’t subsequently describe his actions in detail) but locking him up for a few weeks is not the answer. Far better for him to have been made to meet the families he offended, see the hurt he’s caused, apologise in person and then be treated for the problems which made him act as he did.