Opinion - Fitting punishment to crime is no easy job

Charles Graham
Charles Graham

MANY are the complexities of sentencing.

Judges, magistrates and those chairing tribunals have to weigh up a host of considerations when deciding on the strength of punishments, sometimes using their own discretion, sometimes tied by strict guidelines, for example giving credit for a swift guilty plea which spares the trauma and expense of a trial.

On occasions one is left wondering how on earth they came to such a penalty.

I recall two Wigan cases within weeks of each other a good number of years ago: one which involved a man battering his wife to death; the other a man who smuggled cannabis into prison for his brother. Both were handed jail terms of four and a half years.

Many felt the fatal attack warranted a far stiffer sentence while I bet many believed the smuggling, despite the judge’s understandably wanting to send out a tough message, received a too-heavy term - especially when set alongside the manslaughter.

But there you have it. And unless we are armed with all the info and shackled by all the rules, it is often difficult to question rulings with absolute conviction, so to speak.

I don’t think many people will dispute the four-year sentence meted out to former JJB Sports chief executive Chris Ronnie last month for a £1m fraud. There is a perception that folk get away with a lot of white collar crime or that it is dealt with relatively leniently.

But Ronnie has been hit with a pretty substantial punishment and it’s not over for him yet as the authorities now try to recoup his ill-gotten gains through a Proceeds of Crime Act investigation.

I suspect public opinion may be more divided on two more recent judgements concerning prominent Wigan figures: Dave Whelan and Emma McGurrin.

In the Wigan Athletic chairman’s case, there were clearly some folk who felt his £50,000 fine and six-week ban from all football-related activities were too lenient a chastisement from the FA for his antediluvian and upsetting comments about Jewish and Chinese people.

There are gradations of racism, ranging on the one hand from out and out hatred of a people and a belief in their inferiority to, on the other hand, that casual but nonetheless distressing stereotyping which was once so widespread and tolerated and is still reasonably common among older folk who haven’t woken up to the unacceptability of certain terminology these days.

Whelan, to my mind, definitely falls into that later category in the spectrum, and while I think there was leeway for a larger fine and longer ban, I’m glad that this affair, which sent media shock waves around the sporting world even more than Latics’ FA Cup win, has not destroyed everything he has worked for by precipitating his abandoning of his beloved club. Heaven knows, it’s got enough problems this season without its head honcho quitting over something so daft and unnecessary.

Meanwhile former Standish councillor Emma McGurrin is now cooling her heels in prison after landing an eight-month sentence for fiddling her expenses.

When you see how often seasoned shoplifters are spared jail for stealing far more than the £1,700 made in bogus child care claims by the 36-year-old politician, it is fair to wonder whether she has had a raw deal.

But we must factor in the systematic nature of her repeated offences and the fact that she appears to have got right up the judge’s nose by her antics in the dock which included persistent lying.

She was also an elected member of our local authority, put in a position of trust and responsibility by the voters and paid for with taxpayers’ money (including the cash she swindled).

Some will argue whether putting a mother of a young child, with no previous convictions, behind bars for several months, is the best use of hard-pressed prison resources and, indeed, the most fitting punishment.

But it could also be argued that public figures should also be made an example of if they choose repeatedly to commit fraud. Considering how many MPs have fallen foul of the law for expenses fiddling in the last few years, pleading ignorance is never going to wash either.

I’ll leave you to decide whether she’s in the right place at the moment.