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Leading Article: A sentence that raises public anger

ANYONE who repeatedly attacked an adult over a period of six weeks, causing 23 fractures, would expect to go to prison if caught. To inflict the same damage on a baby would normally be regarded as worse. Yet Patrick Weighell, who battered his own son in this way, was put on probation for 18 months and ordered to attend an anger management course. The leniency of Judge Robert Pryor has provoked a strong public reaction.

In Judge Pryor's defence it is suggested that he must have found strong mitigating factors in the papers that were in front of him when he passed sentence on Monday. For instance, Mr Weighell is reported to be remorseful and is no longer living at home with the baby, so the chances of his repeating the offence with this particular child seem low.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine anything that would justify conveying the impression that Mr Weighell's behaviour was in some way understandable on the grounds that, as is commonly known, babies can be frustrating. Nor is it right to treat the offence as being of a lesser order than other forms of cruelty to children. Even granted that the punitive element in sentencing is suspect, its total absence in this case goes too much against the grain of public feeling and conveys dubious messages on personal responsibility and public safety.

From 1 March, unless the Commons objects, it will be possible to refer lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal in cases of cruelty and neglect towards children, indecent assault and threats to kill. This extension of existing provisions will not be retroactive, so will not apply to the Weighell case. Nor will it wholly solve problems that arise from eccentric sentencing. One much-needed reform would be to increase the frequency of refresher courses for judges, who now are required to undergo only a week of retraining every five years.

In the meantime attention will be drawn to anger management courses. They form part of a trend that has developed over the past few years to confront offenders in addictive areas such as sex, drugs, alcohol and violence with responsiblity for their actions, stripping away self- justifying myths and helping them to change their behaviour.

The techniques are too new to have built up solid evidence on their effectiveness, but they look promising. They are used in prisons as well as by the probation service, so they are not an alternative to custody. Last year 191 prison staff were trained. This is far too few, but had Mr Weighell been jailed, one of them could surely have found time for him.