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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 May, 2005, 13:39 GMT 14:39 UK
Top QC defends shorter sentences
Prison door
Plea-bargaining has been attacked by opponents
A top lawyer has defended giving shorter sentences to criminals who plead guilty.

The remarks have come from Derek Ogg, the QC who is chairman of the Criminal Bar Association of the Faculty of Advocates.

He said: "It is an advantage to the family not to have to sit through a lurid and brutal set of evidence."

The sentence of double murderer Shaun Alexander, who pleaded guilty, has been attacked by supporters of his victims.

He murdered his ex-wife Nicola Johnstone, 23, and Kevin Braid, 41, in a garden spa bath in Leslie in Fife last October.

Alexander was imprisoned for a minimum of 17 years. Lord Advocate Colin Boyd is appealing against the "lenient" sentence.

I felt shocked and totally appalled that the judge got it so wrong
Colin Gibbons
Murder victim's uncle

Raymond Clark, a friend of Mr Braid, complained: "Prior to the case, they dropped six charges to get him to plead guilty.

"That is a cost-saving thing. That is to save money and time in court and that's wrong."

He continued: "How do you get discount for murdering somebody and bragging about it and having no remorse for what you have done. Where is the justice in that?"

Ms Johnstone's uncle, Colin Gibbons, added: "I felt shocked and totally appalled that the judge got it so wrong.

"We weren't in a position to be able to stop her and correct her on the issue. It leaves us where you just don't know what to think."

Derek Ogg said: "If a loved one of mine had been murdered, I don't think there would be very much a judge could say from the bench that would satisfy me, short of ripping the person who did it to pieces in a public display of revenge.

"It's very difficult for people who are going through the pain and grief of the criminal loss of a loved one to find any satisfaction in any sentence at all. Victims always want vengeance."

They come out as better criminals than when they went in
Derek Ogg QC

But he went on: "As a society, is that all we are about in court? I'm talking further down the scale, away from murder.

"If we can't rehabilitate the thousands of people in our Scottish prisons, all we are doing is garaging them there until they come out.

"When they come out, they come out the same criminals, or even better criminals, than when they went in."

The lawyer said: "The Crown Office has put a lot of effort and a lot of training into paying a lot more attention to how the victims feel and how they are brought into the system.

"There's been a far more humane approach to victims, but ultimately the Crown Office prosecutes in the public interest.

"That must be right because there are objectives that we have to have and discounting is an example of that.

"If a person pleads guilty early, that - in part - is a demonstration of remorse. They'll still get severely punished, but with a discount on it."

Ministers have set up the Sentencing Commission to probe how offenders are punished.

Prison reformers' plea

Mr Ogg has been supported by prison reformers, who have called for measures such as tagging and community punishment for less serious crimes.

Chief executive of the charity Sacro, Susan Mathieson, believes in many cases short jail sentences are a waste of time and do no good for either the offender or society itself.

"Prison is not universally the effective sanction by any means. There's a lot of international and Scottish evidence that community-based sanctions are at least as effective in reducing reoffending as short-term prison sentences," she said.

"There's consensus, that everyone recognises, that they're very damaging to offenders and their families.

"Just as damaging in cutting them off from family and other relationships and their community as a longer sentence."

Ms Mathieson added: "We'd actually be far better to put public money into health and education.

"That's what's going to reduce offending - far more than a series of short prison sentences."

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