A one-off

“It seems to me that if this was a one-off, a complete one off, to prevent this extraordinary young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes would be a sentence too severe.”

Lavinia Woodward, 24, an Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife in the leg under the influence of drink and drugs. She also threw a laptop, glass and jam jar at him before stabbing herself. The above is a heavily publicised quote lifted from the judgment handed down by Justice Ian Pringle QC, as a justification for deferring her sentence (she will now be sentenced on 25 September 2017).

The first article I read on Lavinia’s case, opened with the following:

“an extraordinary Oxford university student who stabbed her ex-boyfriend in the leg may avoid jail as it would affect her career prospects.”

Naturally I read the article because I wanted to know what made Lavinia so extraordinary that she was let off a crime that typically carries a custodial sentence. The answer was that she was a first-rate medical student at Oxford, with aspirations of becoming a surgeon. Justice Pringle took the view that the penalty of depriving her of realising her career ambitions was commensurate with the crime committed — and therefore a custodial sentence was not needed.

Aside from the fact that Lavinia, as an upper class, white, female Oxford undergraduate, is not your typical profile for a knife crime offender my first thought was that depriving an offender of their career ambitions, as a form of retribution, is not exactly something you commonly hear in judgements. I assume it is also not a judgment that Justice Pringle often hands down. My second thought was that there are obviously crimes that Lavinia would commit, an obvious example being murder, where the loss of her career would not be an adequate form of punishment.

The grey area, and the issue that opens up serious questions about racial, gender and social bias in our criminal justice system, is whether Justice Pringle would have afforded Lavinia the same leniency for committing a crime more readily associated with her socio-economic background. Let’s say for example that Lavinia had committed financial fraud, and for fairness of comparison, to a level of seriousness that would usually carry a similar custodial sentence to the crime she committed. Would Justice Pringle in this case defer sentencing in order to allow her to fulfil her career ambitions? The answer would almost certainly be no. In fact, if he were to mention her academic ability at all in this case, it would likely be relevant to, and would add to, her culpability — possibly that someone of her intelligence utilised their talents perniciously for financial gain. There is a simple conclusion to draw from this comparison — that it is not just the legal severity of the crime that Justice Pringle is weighing up in deciding whether to deprive Lavinia of a career in medicine, but the nature of the crime as well.

This in itself is not something I take issue with. It is of course essential in order to assess one’s criminal liability, to understand why they committed the specific offence they did. Lavinia has a history of drug addiction and abusive relationships and her violence should be understood in this context. What I do take issue with, is Justice Pringle suggesting that this crime is a “a complete one-off.” What anyone would assume he means, is that he does not see the offence as evidencing a long-standing propensity for criminally violent behaviour. But why? This can’t be the case — Lavinia has a history of sporadic anti-social behaviour (a previous boyfriend reported her to the police and a fellow student who shared the same accommodation building as her, asked to be relocated due the disruptions she caused). Whilst I encourage a socially empathetic reading of her offence, it is for this very reason that one cannot necessarily call it a “one-off” — the judge should sympathise with her for precisely the opposite rationale — by understanding her crime in the context of a person who is socially disposed to violence, specifically within a relationship.

Justice Pringle is willing to call the act a one-off, not because he believes that there is actually very little possibility of a re-offence, but because the offence was committed by a white, upper-middle class, Oxford educated female with aspirations of being a surgeon. To Justice Pringle, Lavinia is an exemplar of a well educated, safe and socially productive member of society. So what happens when Lavinia sits before him for committing a crime disproportionately committed by men, ethnic minorities and members of a lower socio-economic class? The answer is that because Lavinia’s propensity for violence cannot be explained as a socio-systemic issue (examples being the correlation between poverty and violent crime or the Met Police’s preoccupation with “black on black crime”), it cannot be longlasting. It is so socially incongruous, that without mental illness as an explanation it must be a one off — either an isolated moral fall from grace or a rare act of loss of control. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth but ultimately the presumption that she is a fundamentally safe and socially productive citizen is never questioned.

If this crime was committed by a man, an ethnic minority and a member of a lower socio-economic class, Justice Pringle would not have the same presumptions of the offender as he enters his courtroom. The presumption would likely instead be that disenfranchisement, financial instability and a lack of education is correlated with anti-social behaviour, and particularly prevalent amongst men (by way of example in 2015, 670 women were dealt with in UK courts for GBH and ABH, compared to 6,800 men in the same year). To act violently by stabbing your partner would simply reinforce this. Even if the offender had never committed a violent act before, the offence would not be seen as a single, ultimately excusable transgression as Lavinia’s was, but as confirmation of the criminal potential of a person whose social norms differ vastly from Justice Randall’s. A loss of this persons’ career would not have the same emotional reaction for Justice Randall because it would not, in his mind, be denying a beacon of rationality, critical thinking and self reflectiveness there chosen career path. Justice Randall would only understand the offenders’ social norms as differing from his and that his violence must be in some way be a product of this difference. The violence is therefore depersonalized and is understood as a by product of social disintegration, from the reserve of society where despite many aspiring surgeons, there are no “extraordinary people” and certainly no “long held desires worth chasing.”