The courage of Judge Peter Bowers

Those sentencing remarks in context.

Every week in every Magistrates' Court and Crown Court there are judges and magistrates making sentencing remarks to convicted defendants.

Often this is a pointless exercise.  Words of admonishment or of encouragement are likely to have little or no effect.  Indeed, one can wonder why such remarks are made.  All that the defendant will usually want is to know what their sentence will be and not receive a pep talk from the bench.

Perhaps there is a good argument for stopping such remarks but it may well be that, in certain situations, they could make a positive if marginal difference.

And if that is the case, then it is in the public interest for the remarks to be made: less re-offending is for the good of everyone.

However, sometimes these comments are clumsy or crass.  And sometimes they can be reported out of context by a sensationalist media, packaging the story to get outrage from readers and quotes from politicians.  After all, is the attitude, judges are always out of touch; it is just a question of finding examples.

So with this in mind, let's look at the case of Judge Peter Bowers, the judge who has caused media and political uproar because of his apparent commendation of the courage of a burglar.

The full sentencing remarks are not actually available (though that will not stop many people having very strong opinions), but the fullest report appears to be from the newspaper which broke the story:

Judge Peter Bowers admitted he could be “pilloried” for his decision to let a serial burglar walk free from his court.

He said: “It takes a huge amount of courage as far as I can see for somebody to burgle somebody’s house.

“I wouldn’t have the nerve.

“Yet somehow, bolstered by drugs and desperation, you were prepared to do that,” he told Richard Rochford, the man in the dock yesterday.

He accepted that Rochford, 26, had been harmed by prison.

“I think prison very rarely does anybody any good,” he said. “It mostly leaves people the chance to change their own mind if they want to.

“I don’t think anybody would benefit from sending you to prison today. We’d all just feel a bit easier that a burglar had been taken off the streets.”

This tells us two important things.  First, the judge seems to be aware that there would be an adverse public reaction to his comments.  This suggests he is not naive.  He acknowledges how badly the remarks may go down, but he is going to make them anyway.  This may be because of arrogant stupidity, or because he had the courage to realise any positive impact would be worth being "pilloried".

Second, the remarks seem to be in the context of not sending a defendant into prison when it looks like it was a previous imprisonment – and the availability of drugs in a prison – which formed part of the reason why the defendant resorted to burglary.

Nonethless, the reported comments are strange. 

No one who has ever been burgled will think that it is an exercise of courage, or indeed of any other virtue. 

But what the judge was evidently seeking to convey is that a burglary is not what people would normally do but for (in this case) the "drugs and desperation". 

However, there are many other ways of making the same point and one would expect an experienced judge to have said something more appropriate.  Indeed, according to the Daily Mirror, the burglar himself denied that he had been courageous:

I feel sorry for what I did because I know what people feel like to get burgled.

I know what my dad felt like when he got burgled. I feel bad for what I did.

I know it won’t make up for what I’ve done but I am sorry. I don’t think burglary is a courageous thing to do.

I felt awful about it to be honest but I can barely remember even doing it – I was on 60 to 70 valium tablets a day at the time.”

That last sentence is important.  Remember the judge said it was "drugs and desperation" which made the defendant do something he otherwise would not do.

The burglar added:

I do think the judge was right to not put me in prison because last time I went in, I took drugs and if he’d have put me back in there,

I would have taken drugs again, I would have gone on to commit more crimes.

There’s no chance I’ll be getting back into drugs. I start a new job in a week’s time.

We can only take the defendant's comments at face value, but if sincere then there is a lower risk of further crimes being committed.

And if that is so, then the tragedy in this case is that an example of the criminal justice system working – in that there it is less likely that there will be re-offending by a defendant – has been converted by the media into a classic "law is an ass" story.

The sensible response to the remarks is that of Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform who told me:

Comments that appear to belittle the seriousness and trauma of domestic burglary are unhelpful, so while the sentiment was mistaken, the sentence was correct. 

Community sentences have a far better track record of helping people into crime free lives than a short prison sentence and that means fewer victims. 

Those who advocate prison sentences indiscriminately have to accept responsibility for their failure and the next victim should be on their conscience.

In passing the sentence, and in attempting to engage with the defendant in his sentencing remarks, Judge Peter Bowers said something which was at best unfortunate. 

But that was not the only thing he did. 

It would appear that Judge Peter Bowers imposed a sentence which was both correct at law and also likely to lead to a lower risk of the defendant re-offending; and he should be praised for doing this, even if his remarks were obtuse.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

Judge Peter Bowers

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland