Friday, June 17, 2011

no room for chat

Sentencing is very simple. To all those who don’t do it. The case of Joanne Fraill is bound to elicit disparate and dogmatic views on whether a prison sentence is appropriate for inappropriate chatting. At a time when the government wants to reduce our prison population, reduce sentences for those giving early guilty pleas, and make more use of curfews and rehabilitating community orders, it may seem incongruous to send a 40 year old mum to prison for typing “dont worry about that chge no way it can stay hung for me - this is 2nd tim init - at least then yer home n dry”.

Sounds innocent enough, if you can interpret it, except that Joanne was sitting on a jury at the time and was chatting over the internet to Jamie Stewart who had just been acquitted of conspiracy to supply class A, but leaving the fate of her co-defendants in a £6million drugs trial still to be decided by Joanne and her co-jurors. During a crown court trial jurors are repeatedly warned by the judge not to dicuss the trial with anyone at all, not even family, and not to carry out internet searches on anything relating to the individuals or matters involved.

But Joanne searched for and found Jamie. When their online chat was exposed the following day, the trial had to be stopped and a potential miscarriage of justice was the outcome. The guilty chatter knew what she was doing was wrong, as evidenced by one of her remarks to Jamie: “cant get anywaone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese dont say anyhting cause Jamie they could call mmiss trial and i will get 4cked to0”.

And 4cked she was. Sentencing Joanne to 8 months immediate custody for contempt of court, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that “jailing jurors who abuse the process was the only way to ensure the ‘continuing integrity’ of trials in the 21st century”. But is he right ?

Her offence wasn’t violent, she didn’t break in to someone’s home, she hasn’t stolen, kidnapped, committed fraud or sexual offences, nor even carried a knife. She has no previous convictions. The Lord Chancellor, aka Ken Clarke, says in his major proposals for reform of sentencing, titled Breaking the Cycle, that prison will always be the right sentence for serious and dangerous offenders. Does that include Joanne ?

Well yes it does. Not that she is a dangerous offender nor, in the round, a serious one. But this offence was serious. Very serious in its consequences. And the prison sentence is right because it is the only viable deterrent to an explosion in the criminal abuse of internet based facilities that will occur if the deterrent isn’t used. Internet chatters have to understand that they are accountable for what they do and say on the effortless global medium, just as if they were writing a letter and signing it. The protection assumed until now by the detachment afforded by the internet from the spoken, printed or handwritten word is disappearing. The internet isn’t the escape from reality that it once was.

Although she won't serve eight months, probably (and hopefully) not more than two, Joanne is a little unfortunate to have been made the example and been imprisoned to establish a precedent and a principle. Arguments over whether prison acts as a deterrent are numerous and often based on flawed studies. To a career criminal maybe it doesn't but to the ordinary and generally law abiding person, like Joanne and other chatters, it certainly does. The flouting of court orders, even on the internet, will, if it goes unchecked, bring criminal justice into suspicion, cynicism and disrepute. Judge Judge is right. It must be deterred.



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