Huhne / Pryce: I just don’t see how ‘prison works’ for anyone here

by Stephen Tall on March 12, 2013

His crime was speeding then lying (and lying some more). Her crime was lying and self-immolating revenge. Last night they spent their first night in prison.

Few people will spare much sympathy for either Chris Huhne or Vicky Pryce. They are, as Mr Justice Sweeney said yesterday when sentencing the pair to eight months each, the architects of their own downfall. Though I also think it would take a particularly stony heart not to look at the ashen-faced photos of them, besieged by a mob-handed press as their humiliation is played out in real-time in the full glare of publicity, and not feel any sympathy at all. And if not for them, at least spare a thought for their kids.

Their shared crime, perverting the course of justice, has come at high cost. Not only to them and their family, but also to the taxpayer. It cost us over £150,000 to prosecute them. It would cost a further £100,000 to keep them in jail if they served their sentences in full. That’s an expensive way of making them an example that no-one (“however high and mighty” in the Prime Minister’s phrase) is above the law.

Do they pose a risk to others? Is there any chance of them re-offending? If you answer no to both those questions you have to ask whether jail is the right punishment, rather than hefty fines and lengthy community service.

Yes, they’re being treated consistently with others found guilty of the same offence. But that’s a reason to question our obsession with imprisonment-as-punishment rather than a justification in itself. And, by the way, that applies to all types of non-violent crime — not just the middle-class-professional-sort which seeks (as Huhne/Pryce did) to brazen out speeding offences. Their sentencing is just as disproportionate in its own way as was the jailing for four years of first-time offenders for posting messages about the 2011 riots on Facebook.

Prison works if your goal is to protect society from a threat or to offer justice to a victim. I don’t see how prison works here.

>> You can see what my LDV colleagues thought about it all in Caron’s post last night here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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7 comments

agreed

by Louise Shaw on March 12, 2013 at 2:55 pm. Reply #

I agree. What I think is interesting about the frequent use of imprisonment as punishment for offences of perverting the course of justice is that this pattern stems from the judiciary rather than Parliament. Whilst usually we can criticise Parliament and the obsession of governments with mandating harsher and harsher sentences for offences (the new mandatory prison sentence for knife crime is a classic example), as perverting the course of justice is a common law offence, judges have absolute discretion and Parliament cannot be criticised. There is no legislation on sentencing, nor any sentencing guidelines for the offence. Judges are under no pressure to impose prison sentences yet do so anyway.

I find it interesting because the judiciary has traditionally been criticised for being too lenient and not putting people in prison enough, whereas for this particular offence, prison is almost always the sentence. It may be because judges see perverting the course of justice is a more serious offence than the public, given that it that attacks the institution to which they've dedicated their careers and their lives. Perhaps, as a result, their views are slightly out of touch with the public who might (I do not know) see courts as just another institution like school or hospitals and so, perhaps, don't see that lying to a police officer is that much more serious than lying to any other public servant. Is lying to the police about speeding points that much more morally reprehensible than misleading councils to get extra benefits, for example? The latter is an offence that rarely carries a sentence of imprisonment unless the sums involved are tens of thousands of pounds. What about cheating the education system by lying about your religion or where you live to get children into a particular school? That would never lead to imprisonment.

In any event, I would like to see a presumption in law that sentences would not be ones of imprisonment unless the offence was a violent or sexual one, or if the offender was a repeat offender. Tough Community Orders involving long periods of unpaid work and hefty fines would constitute just punishment for those offences where there is no real risk of re-offending, no underlying issue which necessitates rehabilitation, and where the offence was non-violent and non-sexual.

by Richard Wingfield on March 12, 2013 at 3:26 pm. Reply #

Couldn’t agree less. Don’t care who they are, or what their position; they broke a law which is pivotal in providing a system of law which is at least reasonably fair for all. How would it be if everyone behaved in this way? Perhaps more to the point, how would it be if we were all conditioned to assume that all accused people were lying through teir teeth and had arranged alibis? Where would this all end?

If this episode prevents one more politician or other high-profile “public figure” from adopting the same defence, it will be time well spent.

Finally, the responsibility for considering the impact on their family lies with them, not us.

by Bob George on March 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm. Reply #

Too important are they? For a long time we thought they were too important to face prosecution.

One object of incarceration is punishment for crime. It also serves as an example so that others may discouraged from criminal action.

Chris Huhne carried out a course of deliberate lies abut his actions and in consequence added hugely to the cost of his trial.

by Victor Southern on March 12, 2013 at 9:14 pm. Reply #

I think the whole case was amazingly bizarre, actually. A pompous judge, who obviously does not like either of the individuals involved, throws his weight about. All because of the concept of “perverting the course of justice” – or rather, perverting the course of a speed camera! LOL. :/ So what – are we all now supposed to tell the truth to speed cameras? Worship them – or something?! In most countries, they think of ways to block them, or fox them! The Germans put flashing lights in their cars’ rear windows! In 3rd world countries, where crap drivers abound, they don’t have these monstrosities! My dad lived & drove his whole life without probably even seeing a speed camera! As an ex-serviceman (where he probably learnt to drive) he always said you “should drive according to the road conditions”.

So what is it with the enforced obeisance to the ugly moneymakers? (I’ve heard that they’ve caused old people in my county to have heart attacks.)

And in some states in the US currently, they are challenging these

by Liz K on March 13, 2013 at 11:24 am. Reply #

..for being wrongly calibrated, and *for not providing any proof of what speed they were actually travelling.* *& in US, land of the free & home of the draconian, I have never heard of anyone being jailed by one of these. I don’t even know if they steal your license over there: I think they are used more as a revenue-generator!* I’m currently asking an American: watch my twitter @oneoflokis, for answers! 🙂

by Liz K on March 13, 2013 at 11:30 am. Reply #

&I know we seem to prefer the nanny-state approach over here: minimum price on alcohol: soda tax next! (But an American judge has just bopped Bloomberg’s tax on the head in NY: as unconstituional!)

Still: I’m surprised that there is no libertarian mass campaign against speed cameras in UK yet! Just bcos they bring down politicians when nowt else can (though I personally have high hopes of the Bedroom Tax, namely Poll Tax MK II), doesn’t mean we should fall down & worship the ugly grey boxes.

Personally, I rather hope that the boy racers, top gearers, & the general louts in the UK unite & revive the fashion for necklacing Speed Cameras! 🙂

by Liz K on March 13, 2013 at 11:40 am. Reply #

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