Who, What, Why: How do judges decide on sentences?

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Prisoner looking out of bars (file pic)
Image caption,
Judges look at a number of factors before sentencing

A man found guilty of trying to sell a valuable book was jailed for eight years this week. On the same day, in the same court, another man received a shorter prison term for killing someone. Why?

Raymond Scott has been jailed for eight years for handling a stolen copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. Within hours of his sentencing another man, in the same court, Michael Ridley, was sentenced to six years for manslaughter.

Scott, a 53-year-old antiques dealer from County Durham, received six years for handling the rare book and an additional two years for then trying to take it out of the country.

Ridley, 22, was locked up for the killing of Staff Sgt Chris Chacksfield during an unprovoked attack in Newcastle.

Not only did the circumstances of the case differ, but so did the actions of the accused - and this goes some way to explaining the sentencing gap between the two. Ridley pleaded guilty to manslaughter and grievous bodily harm charges while Scott opted for a full trial, denying the charges set before him.

But before the respective judges made any decisions about the punishment facing both men, they would have referred to the national sentencing guidelines for each offence.

Scott had been cleared of stealing the book by the jury last month but Judge Richard Lowden said he had caused considerable damage to the "quintessentially English treasure".

The 1623 Shakespeare text was taken from a display cabinet at Durham University in 1998 and only re-emerged 10 years later with a torn out page and ripped binding.

The value of the book and its condition would have had a strong bearing on the sentence handed down to Scott, says the BBC's legal analyst Clive Coleman.

"They would have looked at the value of the goods and the profit the accused intended to make - which in this case it was a vast one."

Anything involving goods worth more than £100,000 requires an automatic four-year minimum sentence. In this case the folio, even in its subsequent damaged state, was worth at least £1m.

The judge also told Scott he took the matter extremely seriously and said: "This offence of handling was no less serious than that of theft."

The court also heard that Scott had 25 previous convictions dating back to 1977, mainly for dishonesty - something criminal barrister Jeremy Dein QC says would have played a significant part in the judge's decision.

And although the two cases were dealt with on the same day, are they really that comparable, wonders Mr Dein.

"The whys and wherefores of sentencing are a matter of bemusement for the public and this is a classic example where they find reconciliation of the two sentences difficult," says Mr Dein. "But we are not dealing with 'like-for-like'.

"We are not dealing with harm to the death in the first case but a highly professional, deliberate and concerted criminal effort. And the sentence given had to be a punishment and a deterrent."

It is important to remember, he says, that murder and manslaughter are two separate offences with different intentions behind them.

Staff Sgt Chacksfield died of head injuries three days after he was punched by amateur boxer Ridley during a night out in Newcastle in May.

The soldier and his wife had apparently bumped into Ridley , while walking arm-in-arm in the street.


"The sentences have to reflect the culpability of the offender and not just the consequences," Mr Dein says. "What were his intentions when the action took place?

"At the end of the day you do have a dead body."

But some members of the public find it hard to understand that Ridley did not intend to kill.

"You have to consider that this man received five years for a single punch. Had the victim not died, he may have received a lesser punishment," he said.

And the Sentencing Council - the independent body in charge of sentencing in England and Wales - says that pleading guilty, as Ridley did - can also affect the punishment.

A spokesman says in deciding what kind of sentence should be given for a particular offence, "courts look firstly at the culpability of the offender and the harm they have caused the victim."

Aggravating and mitigating factors then play a part as do the judgements in any previous similar cases.

Image caption,
The court heard that Scott had previous convictions

The Ridley case was an example of a "one punch manslaughter case" which were historically given 12 month jail sentences, says Coleman.

But the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and a Court of Appeal ruling in December last year, increased the sentencing options available.

Currently the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

"But with crown cases, there is an opportunity to appeal to the Attorney General if the sentence is believed to be "unduly lenient", he added.

The Ministry of Justice said it was unable to comment on the specific Newcastle cases but that it was "conducting a full assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation policy".

But Mr Dein warned: "You must always be cautious about comparing dissimilar crimes - it is not a science."

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