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.)

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

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The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage