Leading Article: Last of light sentences for drink-drive deaths?

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be hard to imagine a case of dangerous and drunken driving more shocking than that of Robert Hoe. The 18-year-old from Eston, Cleveland, killed two young sisters and left their nine-year-old friend crippled when he crashed into them after a drinking binge. He had never had a driving lesson and the car was neither insured nor licensed. At the time of the accident, he had double the legal drink-drive limit of alcohol in his blood.

Charged with causing death by dangerous driving, he was this week sentenced to four years in a young offenders' institution and disqualified from driving for six years. As sentence was passed, he waved and raised a thumb to the public gallery.

Naturally the stricken families have been deeply distressed by the lightness of the sentence, and their disgust is widely shared by the public. By way of reaction, the Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, who can challenge unduly lenient sentences for serious offences, has called for the papers on the case from the Crown Prosecution Service. Yet it is hard to see what he can do to bring the sentence more into line with public expectations.

At the time of the offence in April, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was five years. Why then did Mr Justice Bell not impose it? The answer is that he was obliged to give a discount, principally because the offender had pleaded guilty. Guilty pleas save time and expense and often spare distressed relatives from giving evidence. Case law suggests they should be rewarded with a discount.

Could not Hoe have been charged by the CPS with manslaughter? Only, the CPS explains, if it could have been proved that the vehicle had been driven with the prime purpose of killing or seriously maiming (the law tends to be more concerned with intent than consequences). In earlier years, juries proved very reluctant to convict drivers on manslaughter charges, with the even more appalling result that offenders walked free. As it happens, the average sentence for manslaughter is six to eight years, rather less than the new maximum of 10 years for causing death by dangerous driving.

Thanks to that rare doubling of a maximum sentence, Robert Hoe should be among the last to get off so lightly after ending two lives and wrecking so many others.