The conviction and sentence of Thomas Cashman for the appalling murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel has aroused understandable public horror. Cashman was recently sentenced, in his absence, to life with a minimum term of 42 years. But the accompanying outrage about the case from politicians has more than a hint of opportunism and hypocrisy.
Cashman refused to enter the dock to hear Mrs Justice Amanda Yip’s sentencing remarks, or the sentence itself, cited by her as further evidence of his lack of remorse. His absence from a hearing that was also televised, has led to anger that convicted criminals should be permitted to evade the gaze of the public and more importantly, their victims’ families, when they come to be sentenced.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab was quick to comment on twitter, “…I plan to change the law to compel offenders to face up to their actions, so victims can see the justice they deserve being served." And Mr Raab had previously publicly stated that the Government was looking to allow judges to impose longer prison terms on prisoners who do not attend sentencing hearings.
Seizing possession of the political football that is criminal justice, and forcibly kicking it back at his opponent, Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed commented ‘It’s an absolute scandal that the Government has stood by while killers, rapists and terrorists pick and choose whether they turn up to face justice.’
Public concern that individuals convicted of particularly serious offences might refuse to appear in the dock when sentenced is perhaps understandable. And while it might be possible to amend the law to address this issue, there are obvious practical difficulties. What is unedifying is the rush to score political points off the back of individual cases.
In practice, most people facing sentence do attend their own sentencing hearing, if for no other reason than that failing to do so is unlikely to help if the individual is trying, through their lawyers, to keep their sentence to a minimum. Most defendants have something to gain by cooperating fully with the sentencing process.
It is also a separate criminal offence for a defendant on bail to fail to attend Court when required to. What has caused recent concern is the apparent anomaly that a defendant in custody cannot be compelled to actually enter the dock. It is plainly not feasible to use physical force to do this (although some politicians might be in favour) and so the only realistic option is to allow sentences to be increased.
But in the most serious of cases, about which the public are surely concerned and about which politicians have become so exercised, it is difficult to see that an additional year or even years, is likely to have much persuasive effect. Sentences for the most serious offences are getting ever longer year on year. Does anyone really think that a defendant who is facing a minimum term of thirty or more years is likely to attend a hearing for fear of what will inevitably be a limited additional period in prison?
None of this appears to have occurred to the politicians, not publicly anyway. But there seems to be a widespread belief that there are votes to be won by being “tough on crime” even less serious stuff – the Prime Minister, no less, recently promised us that offenders carrying out unpaid work in the community will be made to wear jumpsuits so that they are clearly visible to passers-by.
And then there is the ongoing controversy about Labour’s publicity posters suggesting that the Prime Minister is somehow soft on sex offending.
There was a time when policy announcements on complicated issues like sentencing and community penalties were left to the relevant ministers, and it is difficult to imagine a past prime minister such as Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher involving themselves in debates about practicalities and procedure in this way.
Perhaps the practical difficulties of legislating on this issue explain why the Government has, curiously enough, omitted to do so throughout its 13 years in office, and why the opposition were similarly inactive in their 13 years in office before that. In criminal justice, as with other issues of legitimate public concern, sometimes there is no easy eye-catching solution, and responsible politicians might do well to acknowledge that.