This month we saw eight-month sentences handed out to Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce for perverting the course of justice. Both had been warned to “be under no illusion as to the likely sentence’ – the judicial way of saying, “expect a custodial sentence”. Of course, the lawyers would tell you that this was inevitable as the courts treat such crimes severely.
As the news spread that both had received immediate custodial sentences, Twitter exploded. Discussions of whether it was “necessary” to impose custodial sentences, or whether such sentences served any practical purpose were rife. Opinions were split; whilst many felt prison was the only option for a serious offence of that nature, equal numbers considered the sentences futile and that they wasted public funds in a time when the cupboard is bare.
Should prison be reserved only for the most dangerous and violent criminals?
Arguments in the yes camp largely centre on the financial argument. We know it is hideously expensive to keep someone in custody, so why bother incurring the cost of sending Huhne and Pryce to prison when they pose little to no risk of reoffending? Where there is little risk posed to the public, should custody be avoided?
Some consider the excruciatingly public nature of Huhne and Pryce’s fall to be such that the destruction of their reputations is sufficient punishment. Is there sense then in a non-custodial sentence? In fact, arguably, it would be a greater punishment to make them both pick up litter and scrub graffiti from walls – press in tow of course.
Many hold on to the notion that prisons are for nasty, evil, dangerous criminals and serves to protect the public. Do we really need protecting from those who lie to the police, commit fraud or even steal a car?
On the other side of the fence are those who maintain that prison cannot be solely for the violent or dangerous. They say that such a view represents a misunderstanding of why the state sends someone to prison. It marks the seriousness of an offence in a way that no other sentence can. Perverting the course of justice is not a victimless crime – it undermines the rule of law and consequently society as a whole suffers. Mr Justice Sweeney stated: “Offending of this sort strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system.” Are there many offences which can have such a widespread effect?
If the consequence of such behaviour is merely a few hours of litter picking then the view that the whole system begins to fall apart begins to carry some weight. Without respect for the law and the consequences of transgression, offending of this type – and others – undoubtedly becomes more prevalent. The 2011 riots are an example of the consequences when people think themselves above the law. The need for deterrence is therefore evident.
Those who support such an approach argue that serious offences are not merely those which involve gratuitous violence or dangerous sexual predatory behaviour; one has to view the offence as a whole, and consider its effect, as a whole. They ask whether a man committing an assault outside of a back street pub deserves a greater punishment than a businessman accepting a bribe over a dinner at a fancy restaurant.
The financial argument is a strong one. Those who support custodial sentences for such offences say that it is a necessary cost. They say that criminal justice system needs to be able to imprison those who commit serious offences.
I am inclined to agree. With serious offences, the stakes are high. A short prison sentence is a small cost to pay for maintaining respect for the rule of law.