Considering it was a cold and inhospitable night to see three short plays at the Rep Theatre in Birmingham, a warm atmosphere was created by an appreciative and well informed audience in attendance. Each drama performed by two talented artists, Miriam Edwards and Bharti Patel. Both used their respective skills to bring to life the well written scripts. They entertained and challenged the audience on the subject of sentencing.
The first play “Paying the Price” written by Liz John gave voice to a professional who presumed her position and esteem as a surgeon meant she shouldn’t be treated as a “common criminal”. Within the arrogance of her own position she used the junior lawyer as a foil to vilify the senior advocate “pathetic efforts” in representing her.
The play explored how the surgeon felt her seniority allowed her licence to carve up women as part of her care of their psychological needs while they were physically healthy. After all she knew best and that was all the grounds she needed for an appeal. Her lack of regret for the horrific injuries she caused or empathy for her victims earned her the contempt of the junior lawyer. She left her client to contemplate the substantial custodial sentence she believed the surgeon was due.
The audience was left to ponder, what sentence can compensate victims who have suffered life altering injury.
In the second, written by Vanessa Oakes the question posed in “Offences Against the Person” was does the sentence ever fit the crime. Including how sentences are determined and is it the case that some offences of violence are treated with greater leniency than others. It neatly challenged the audience as to why there was a disparity of sentencing, especially that between women and men. In addition why does property crime, especially affecting the rich and privileged sometimes attract a more punitive responses that some violent offences. Especially if the victim happens to be a woman.
In the third play “Working Mother” by Julia Wright the audience eavesdropped on a daughter visiting her mother coming to the end of her time in custody. The impact of the futility of a life lost to the cycle of custody was explored with humour and tragedy in equal measure. The mother sought to convince her daughter how she had benefited from courses that had helped her to develop insight into her behaviour. She knew where she had “gone wrong” and why and what to do as a result.
Her daughter soon exposed these as hollow phrases having become fed up of her empty promises that this “time it will be different”. She had the bitterness of being continually let down as she lamented an absent mother leading to her own “wasted years” and lost childhood. No amount of her mother’s justification for shoplifting would dissuade her intention to protect her children from the tragedy of being let down by their grandmother. The scene of the working mother abandoned in the visits room by her daughter was haunting.
There followed a panel discussion chaired by Professor Jackie Hodgson from Warwick University where the playwrights explained their reasoning and inspiration for the plays. After making up the additional member of the panel, I discussed with others the tragedy of privatisation, the treatment of women and the reasons for variances in sentencing.
Given the material and the venue it seemed reasonable to assume the 150 plus that attended would be open minded and the discussion suggested as much. The debate and questions certainly confirmed this and if they were remotely representative of those interested in the Criminal Justice system, then we have a constituency who want to engage with our profession on its role.
Certainly the comments I received after the event were more than encouraging including one of the actors who said she had been waiting to hear someone from the CJS to expound the message of social inclusion. It was certainly uplifting to be part of an enthusiastic event where others outside of Probation were willing to engage in a debate on sentencing.
It was good to take part in an event where I felt appreciated for my role given the current atmosphere we are working in.
Keith Stokeld, National Vice-Chair Finance