Today, three thugs were in front of my Bench. They had taken a dislike to a comment made on Facebook so at just before midnight they'd jumped in a car and gone round to two different addresses to assemble a collection of weapons including baseball bats, tyre irons etc.
They then went to a house where a woman was sleeping with nobody else in the house except her 14 month old daughter. The woman was not the originator of the perceived Facebook comment but... she was vaguely thought to have gone to school with the individual who had made the comment and that, apparently, was sufficient for these big brave thugs. mob handed to start smashing the windows and front door panels with the collection of weapons, after having taken up station in the street and made some frankly, vile comments and threats. Just prior to the physical manifestation of violence, a neighbour had told them that the house was occupied by a young woman and her baby, so they knew the level of resistance they were likely to be subject to, ie. zero.
These three thugs quickly vanished once they heard a Police vehicle approaching but are so well known in the locality for their mindless violence that they were readily identified and arrested from their homes shortly afterwards.
In her Victim Personal Statement (VPS), the young woman told a harrowing tale, as you might imagine, and has since required counselling and medication. She now spends the nights with her parents as she cannot bear to be in her own house. Even in the clinical and objective atmosphere of a Court room, this incident was horrible. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the victim, at the time.
So, what were they charged with? Affray? Violent disorder? Section 4 public order? Fear or provocation of violence?
No. They were charged with, and pleaded guilty to, criminal damage to a door and window with a total repair value of Â£600.
Our sentencing guidelines for that value of criminal damage is a fine, or maybe a low level community order (probation).
Hang on, you might think. That charge doesn't make sense given the circumstances! You would be in agreement with everybody in my Court today, with the notable, and obvious exception of the defendants and their advocate.
However, to the Crown Prosecution Service, and their political lords and masters, such a charge makes perfect sense. The reason being, low level offending like criminal damage isn't included in the headline crime statistics whereas violent disorder, affray etc. most certainly are included. So, members of the government can state, with hand on heart, that the crime rate is falling... the statistics prove it.
These thugs have a history of violent offences going back years and this incident should have been charged appropriately and gone straight to Crown Court where a sentence of several years would have been imposed. I know it is easy to snipe at the Judges and say that they are out of touch and would probably have decided that a slap on the wrist was in order but please, take it from me, that would not have been the final outcome in circumstances such as these.
Their advocate took great pains to point out the guideline sentence and to minimise their actions and sideline the poor young woman and baby who were the victims in this case. Magnanimously, he suggested that if we felt it necessary, the defendants would accept a low level community order.
It took a lot of thought, reviewing of case-law, and careful and systematic enunciation of our reasons, but we were finally able to justify a custodial sentence. Unfortunately, for this low a level of criminal damage, the maximum allowed by law is three months and because they had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, we had to give them a one-third discount on that so their final sentence was two months imprisonment of which, as you are probably all aware, they will serve half.
I hope I can sleep tonight, I just wish I didn't keep hearing the words of that woman's VPS.
This is probably going to read like a bit of a rant - sorry.