Woollard vs Thomas: Sentencing our youth

Two high-profile cases have ended with young people being sentenced to years incarcerated in young offenders’ institutes recently, one for 2 years and 8 months the other a total of 15 years. “So what?” I hear you cry “young people are incarcerated every day!”. Well, yes they are and what does that say about our society? But I want to compare the sentencing of these young people, one 18 years old, the others 19, 20 and 18.

The first of these, if you haven’t already worked it out, is Edward Woollard, the sixth-former who threw a fire-extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative HQ during the student protest. Whilst this was a monumentally stupid thing to do that could very easily have ended worse than it did, it was not a deliberate attempt to hurt anyone, let alone kill.

His sentencing of 2 years 8 months, with parole at 1 year 4 months, will see him spend the rest of his teenage life incarcerated for getting carried away and making a stupid mistake. The judge acknowledged the harshness of the sentence, justifying it as “…a deterrent” to others. Despite 30 character references, no previous convictions, turning himself in and pleading guilty from the earliest opportunity, the judge still saw fit to make an example of him. So the judge’s message here is “don’t be a generally decent person that occasionally gets carried away”.

As Deborah Orr said in The Guardian:

Woollard was not a seasoned activist… He wore no hood. He wore no mask. He had brought no billiard balls. He didn’t even liberate the fire extinguisher in the first place. He clearly had no awareness that the media would be filming the “trouble”, and that identifying him as a culprit would therefore be easy. Woollard had no idea that within a couple of months the judiciary would be “making an example of him”, and nor did his mother, Tania Garwood, who, after the event, drove her son to a police station so that he could make a statement at the earliest opportunity.

The second case is that of 19 year old Ruby Thomas and her co-defendants Joel Alexander, 20 and Rachel Burke, 18, who were found guilty of beating gay civil servant Ian Baynham to death in 2009. They received 7 years, 6 years and 2 years respectively. Much of the media has focussed on Ruby Thomas who is supposed to have delivered the fatal kick to the head after Alexander had punched him to the ground. The incident started when Thomas had been “flirting with passers by” and took offence at presumably being ignored by Baynham and his friend after which she shouted “fucking faggots” at them. The judge stated Thomas had “a previous conviction for drunken loutish behaviour and… demonstrated hostility towards Ian Baynham based upon his sexual orientation or presumed sexual orientation”.

Thomas clearly demonstrated an aggressive, homophobic attitude, regardless of whether she knew Baynham to be gay or not. The assault that followed was, therefore, motivated by this hatred.

Edward Woollard, a young man with no previous convictions received nearly half the sentence of Thomas and more than her co-defendant Rachel Burke. Woollard made a mistake, Thomas, Alexander and Burke deliberately attacked and killed someone they perceived to be gay, their intent to cause serious injury if not to actually kill. I am no supporter of custodial sentences, particularly for young people, but I do believe that the way courts sentence people in high-profile cases reflects as much of the feelings of wider society, as it does ‘justice’.