07:13, September 27 114 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-27 07:13:04
The Lavinia Woodward case exposes equality before the law as a myth

On Tuesday, as happens every other day of the year, a criminal appeared in an English court, pleading for leniency. The fact that the offender – who pleaded guilty to a frenzied knife attack on her boyfriend last year – is a woman, is not particularly unusual. 8,447 women were sent to prison in the UK last year, the vast majority for crimes less serious and less violent than this.

In many ways this perpetrator, Lavinia Woodward, aged 24, is a lot like our other female convicts. She spoke of having suffered abuse at the hands of an ex-partner. She described the devastating effects of drug and alcohol abuse. She had, the court heard, had “a very troubled life”.

It’s a narrative judges are tragically used to hearing. More than half of the women in England’s prisons have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse. A third have spent time in care, at least half have abused drugs. Although prison can be a death sentence for these vulnerable women – 12 killed themselves in jail last year alone – 25% of the women who were locked up that year had no prior convictions at all. Woodward on the other hand was twice spared a jail sentence. The judge was compelled by her promising future as an aspiring heart surgeon, her prior good character, her history of addiction and abuse. “You had an immaturity about you which was not commensurate for someone of your age,” the judge said, understandingly.

It’s a familiar point. A recent report into the criminal justice system in England and Wales found that a failure to assess individual maturity – especially of young adults affected by trauma and mistreatment – was perpetuating unfairness in sentencing decisions.

That report was David Lammy’s review of outcomes for black and ethnic minority people in the criminal justice system. For anyone seeking to truly understand why Woodward walked free today, despite having stabbed a victim with a knife and broken the terms of her bail, it makes an excellent starting point. Woodward is white, and privileged. At the time of her attack, she was studying medicine at Christ Church college, Oxford. She had attended a prestigious international school. She could afford an excellent lawyer. She was able to demonstrate – in a language the judiciary can easily understand – her potential future contribution to society.

Lammy’s report found that our police, prosecutors and judges favour people like Woodward on a systemic scale. White people are less likely to go to prison – where ethnic minorities make up 12% of the population despite representing only 3% of society. White offending is treated differently by the media. Count the number of times, for example, Woodward’s stabbing of her boyfriend – who is also white – was described in a newspaper headline as “white on white crime”.

The standard refrain when reports like Lammy’s are published, is that the disproportionate number of black people deserve to be there, because they have offended. In this respect, Woodward’s case is very useful. She offended, in a serious way. She is as deserving of a prison sentence as the young black men so often reported as being involved in stabbings, or the thousands of women whose abuse and addiction leads directly to patterns of offending. But in her case, we are willing to open our minds to the concept that behind the crime lies someone white, educated, and promising.

Woodward’s mitigating pleas of drug abuse and sincere regret were no doubt made all the more heart-wrenching by her QC – a “top criminal lawyer” who specialises in defending wealthy people – including sports stars. Lawyers like this are, after years of austerity, becoming a luxury for those who can afford to pay privately, with even the most committed warning that we are creating “service ghettoes”, where the quality of your defence depends on whether, like Woodward, you can afford to pay to have your story told in the most compelling way. We shouldn’t be demonising Lavinia Woodward. As a criminal defence lawyer myself, I could never shake the stories of some of the young people, full of potential but plagued by demons and adverse circumstances, whose future I saw fall apart at the hands of an all too often heartless criminal justice system.

There is a whole debate among penologists as to whether social deprivation should be taken into account by judges when sentencing – an idea which remains controversial. During the riots in 2011, when hundreds of young people – a disproportionate number from deprived backgrounds – were given harsher than average sentences, we went in the opposite direction.

Now it seems when it comes to sentencing more leniently for privilege however – which no one actually intellectually supports – our courts are just getting on and doing it.

Woodward’s case is a welcome reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Judges are quite capable of seeing offenders as human beings, capable of redemption, deserving of help, support and second chances. If they are wealthy, white, and have an Oxford degree, that is.

Afua Hirsch is a writer and broadcaster