We must all be equal under the law

Justice must always be impartial
Justice must always be impartial - Jonathan Brady /PA

Should punishments for crimes be linked to the wealth or social circumstances of the offender? Some 30 years ago, the then Tory government abandoned means-related fines, introduced in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, after anomalies were exposed. They included a man asked to pay £1,200 for dropping a crisp packet and a motorist handed a £500 fine for parking on a double yellow line when his car broke down.

The notion that everyone was equal under the law was challenged by the idea that better off people could afford higher penalties. Now the reverse is happening. Judges and magistrates are being told that they must consider more lenient sentences for offenders with “deprived” and “difficult” backgrounds or personal circumstances.

This is wrong on a number of levels. First, it is often the case that the most persistent criminals come from deprived backgrounds, and yet they are the people who should face condign punishment to protect wider society. Second, the great majority of people from poorer backgrounds do not commit crimes and to connect the two is patronising. Third, a likely outcome is that people from middle-class backgrounds will end up being given higher penalties. This is unjust.

Some of the criteria for judging disadvantage are subjective, such as “negative influences from peers”. Lawyers for alleged offenders will have a field day exploiting these factors to reduce the sentence for their clients. Judges already take into account the likely impact of a sentence on an individual’s life chances and can use their discretion. Reform is not required. An approach that seeks to formalise the favourable treatment of one group over others is unnecessary and unwise.

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