Letter: Sending a clear message over crime

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article on the sentencing of Patrick Weighell (2 February) refers to the need to improve the refresher courses for the judges on sentencing policy: others might also benefit from such courses.

You recognise the importance of public feeling and acknowledge that the sentence in this case might convey 'dubious messages on personal responsibility and public safety'. However, the comment that the 'punitive element in sentencing is suspect' reflects an unwillingness to appreciate the significance of sentencing for the community and its values. What we punish and how we punish are the mark and measure of our civilisation.

The purposes of sentencing are many, but the 1990 White Paper makes it clear that while rehabilitation is important, 'the first objective for all sentences is denunciation of and retribution for the crime'. The importance of this denunciatory-retributive element is that it is the means by which the courts convey a message to the public about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The Patrick Weighell case brings to the public eye the issue of criminal violence to children by those who look after them. The sentence in this case is an example of how we respond to the person convicted of such an offence.

In our individualistic and multi- cultural society, defining acceptable behaviour may be difficult, but it is vitally important as part of process of identifying and reinforcing commonly shared expectations of how we should behave towards each other. The sentence of the courts must, of course, address the individual offender and the full facts of the case, but the judge is also sending out a message to the public about the type of behaviour that should be censured.

In appropriate cases this should be done not merely through a scolding and a desire to change the offender's future behaviour, but by showing a willingness to mark the severity of the offence by punishing the offender.

Yours sincerely,


Law School

Thames Valley University

London, W5