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An unjust sentence for an idiotic boy

Yes, Edward Woollard — who threw a fire extinguisher from a roof at a student protest — was criminal

It was "deeply regrettable", said Judge Geoffrey Rivlin, QC, to have to sentence an 18-year-old boy to a substantial term of custody for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank Tower during a student protest - but he felt he needed to send "a very clear message to anyone minded to behave in this way that an offence of this seriousness will not be tolerated". So he sentenced to two years and eight months in a young offender institution Edward Woollard, a boy of previously good character, who had been hoping to go to university and who did something absolutely stupid and - yes - even potentially life-threatening, while attending his first ever demonstration.

Deterrent sentences are not new: they go back to the spectacle of public hangings in the 18th century. There was always a flaw in the theory, as evidenced by the pickpockets reported to be active at hangings of other pickpockets - early proof that jacking up sentences is not, in fact, a deterrent.

Nobody has ever been able to prove persuasively that they are. Economists have tried and failed; and as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, has noted, economists tend to start from the assumption that increased sentences reduce crime rates, and then try to prove by how much. It's a version of price theory: if the price of throwing a fire extinguisher increases, you can expect fewer people to "buy" the experience of throwing one. Which assumes rational behaviour in precisely the sort of situation - one of hatred, perhaps, or fear of violence - where it is often absent.

Just theory

Ten years ago, the Home Office commissioned the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University to review the evidence on whether heavier sentences were a more effective deterrent. It could find none. There is a proven cor­relation between levels of offending and the likelihood of conviction, but no statistically significant relationship between severity of punishment and crime rates. In other words, the perception that you will be caught and punished is a deterrent, but the theory that longer sentences also act as a deterrent to others remains just that: a theory - a particularly useful one for politicians wishing to show that they are "tough on crime", and for judges wanting to respond to the political weather.

Indeed, a study by professors at Columbia and Yale Law Schools found that harsher punishments can have the opposite effect. An increase in formal legal control weakens local social controls (when Woollard threw the fire extinguisher, a lot of students started shouting at him), as well as undermining respect for the legitimacy of punishment.

The justification for Woollard's deterrent sentence was not only based on unproven theory, it was also morally wrong. "Sending a message" to others means the public message has overridden the priority to ensure justice for the individual. That is a failing in a penal system that claims to deliver criminal "justice" rather than propaganda or retaliation.

This was a boy who did something stupid and then owned up to it like his mum told him to - but received little credit for it. Watch the video of the disabled protester Jody McIntyre being assaulted by the police on the Guardian website and ask yourself who is more guilty of "violent disorder", the crime to which Woollard pleaded guilty. Or wait to see what the policeman who allegedly hit another student, Alfie Meadows, so hard with a truncheon that he suffered a brain injury is charged with.

There has been surprisingly little outrage about the injustice of Woollard's sentence. Face­book groups are split between supporters and opponents, many of them students who are full of an extremely unattractive sanctimony. Woollard was an idiot and he has bad hair - and anyway he'll be out of jail soon, is the tone of many of the comments. But he will not be out soon; he will serve at least 16 months.

I don't suppose many of us can imagine what 16 months in a young offender institution would be like. It's not boarding school. (Talking of which, does anybody recall any of those yobs in clubs such as the Bullingdon ever being prosecuted for smashing up a restaurant? No, they get out their credit cards and pay.)

No comment

If the tone of the comments on Facebook is sickeningly uncompassionate, the total silence from the National Union of Students (NUS) is nauseating. I asked whether it had any statement about Woollard's sentence, and was told that, no, "we don't really want to comment".

Why not? It was an NUS march that Woollard was participating in. His college has a student union that presumably was involved. The NUS is encouraging school pupils as well as older students to take part in these marches; it therefore bears some responsibility for them. "I don't think it's our place to comment on sentencing," said the spokesman. Is it now only bank balances that merit protection in the student movement? Are human rights not lucrative enough?

This boy was 18 and he hadn't been on a dem­onstration before. Who was giving him guidance? Admittedly, Woollard was fortunate that he didn't kill anybody, as he easily could have done - but 16 months in a YOI is still too high a price to pay for a stupid act. Nobody in any position of authority or power seems prepared to help Woollard now. There is no mention of him in Hansard. His lawyers wouldn't return calls. I do hope that is because they are busy preparing an appeal. His college has kicked him out permanently.

The next time I see students protesting about their rights to free education, I will think of Woollard and wonder why they aren't protesting about his rights, too.


This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency