Over the past two weeks, news has broken of two undergraduates who are facing custodial sentences for relatively minor crimes. Liam Stacey, who drunkenly posted racist tweets after the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is looking at a 56 day jail term, while Laura Johnson has been told a stay at her majesty’s pleasure is on the cards for her role in the August riots.
There is no doubt that both of these students have behaved disgustingly and that their actions are utterly deplorable. But what is perhaps even worse is that the courts have seen fit to essentially ruin the lives of these young people for their imbecilic actions. Of course, racism and theft are not to be tolerated under any circumstances, but I cannot understand why prison sentences seem to be so wantonly handed out to people who do not deserve them. Prison is, to me, a place to discipline criminals who pose a danger to the rest of society, not to lock up those who have made errors that have realistically caused little detriment to anyone at all.
One of the most fascinatingly hypocritical parts of the entire Stacey case is the fact ex footballer Stan Collymore was one of the people to forward the racist tweets to the police. After kicking then partner Ulrika Jonsson in the head three times, an assault for which he has never received any formal punishment, I find it shocking that he would so quickly alert the authorities to crimes which are, in my opinion, far less damaging than what he did. The amount of bile that spills out over the internet daily is nothing short of disgusting, but you simply cannot punish one and not punish the millions of others who engage in equally offensive activities. There shouldn’t be one rule for those who abuse people because of the colour of their skin and another for those who are equally, if not more offensive towards others on the grounds of their looks, for example. Abuse is abuse, and yet had Stacey not made comments pertaining to race, I struggle to believe he would be in as deep trouble as he is now.
Similarly, Laura Johnson has made headlines for the past week following a conviction for chauffeuring looters around during the riots in August. Incessantly branded as ‘the millionaire’s daughter from suburbia’, she is yet another example of someone who is to receive a harsh punishment for a crime that does not fit such retribution. Court proceedings have been adjourned until May 3rd, but Johnson has already been told that a prison sentence is ‘highly likely’ for her actions.
What I really fail to comprehend is why jail terms are deemed more appropriate punishments than the likes of community service for these types of criminals. Putting such people in prison not only exacerbates costs to the taxpayer and leads to overcrowding, but essentially ruins the lives of those who are disciplined in this way. Both Stacey and Johnson will not only be locked up with hardened criminals but also face expulsion from university. This expulsion evidently results in a criminal record, and hugely diminished future job prospects as they will not only have no qualifications, but a custodial sentence on their CV. Essentially, by using these excessively harsh punishments, the judicial system is just boosting future unemployment rates by making these people completely unemployable.
This apparent judicial distaste towards community service seems particularly misjudged in Johnson’s case. One of the most destructive effects of the riots was the way it damaged communities, and thus to punish her by ordering her to serve something she actually had a part in harming would be a far more fitting sentence than the one she is about to receive. Community service actually benefits the community – hence the name – and is probably much harder work than sitting around in prison staring at four walls each day. When people need to be punished, I can’t believe that something helpful for communities that doesn’t cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg seems to just be overlooked.
I expect that the judge was trying to make an example out of the likes of Stacey by bestowing such a harsh punishment upon him, but at a time when internet trolling is at its absolute worst, the entire debacle seems farcical. If we imprisoned every person who was drunkenly verbally abusive, as he was, there would be no end to people lining up to do time. Comments far worse than Stacey’s can be seen on social media sites every day, and whilst that does not excuse what he has done, it makes the entire system seem hypocritical. In a country where convictions for the likes of rape are a pitifully low percentage, the fact drunk 20 year olds are being imprisoned for comparatively minor crimes feels like a failure of justice.