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Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 24 September 2010 17:21 UK
The search for justice

The wig of a judge

What sentencing decisions would you take if you were a judge? How would they compare to the real decisions made in court?

The judiciary is often criticised for being too soft when it comes to sentencing, says Home Affairs editor Mark Easton.

But research suggests that when members of the public are presented with the full facts of a case, they are often no more punitive than the courts.

To put this to the test, the Today programme assembled a panel of listeners and asked them to come up with sentences in four fictional cases, with the help of Crown Court judge Michael Heath.

Listen to their discussions and pit your wits against the cases below.


The defendant is a 23-year-old unemployed man, with four previous convictions for criminal damage and who served a short sentence in a young offenders' institution for arson, was convicted again of criminal damage after pleading not guilty.

He smashed up a family car worth £15,000 outside a house on the estate where he lives. He threw a brick threw the window of a vacant house and sprayed graffiti on a garage door on a house belonging to an elderly resident.

Residents on the estate say he is one of a group of young people whose behaviour has caused a real nuisance in the last few years.

Which sentence do you think fits the crime:

  • 100 hours community service and £70 compensation.
  • 200 hours community service and weekly probation meetings for two years.
  • Three months in prison.
  • Twelve months in prison.

The judge's verdict: 12 months in prison. The crime is "sheer gratuitous violence", and a custodial sentence is required when you take the criminal history - but not resident's comments, which are inadmissible - into account.


A 45-year-old manager of a respected car dealership, was driving home after dinner at the golf club when he hit a cyclist. They died as a result of their injuries.

A speed camera had caught him travelling at 40mph in a 30mph zone a few minutes earlier and his blood alcohol level was almost double the legal drink drive limit.

The defendant, who is a former chairman of the local chamber of commerce, has no previous convictions and is married father of two children aged 11 and 13. The man he killed was his best man. He pleaded guilty.

Which sentence do you think fits the crime:

  • Loses driving licence, 300 hours community service and £5000 fine.
  • One year suspended prison sentence.
  • Five years in prison.
  • Fourteen years in prison.

The judge's verdict: Thirty months imprisonment, four year driving ban. Prison is "almost always required" when alcohol is in the driver's blood steam.


A 30-year-old woman is at home with her toddler daughter when she hears an intruder downstairs. She calls the police, who catch the man as he is leaving.

The defendant is a 23-year-old man with one previous conviction for burglary two years ago. He is a heroin addict, but is in a treatment programme. He pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and asked for one other burglary committed at the same time to be taken into consideration in sentencing.

The woman says the whole experience has left her very shaken and has difficulty sleeping a night especially when partner is away. Her child was extremely upset by the incident.

  • 300 hrs community service and weekly probation meetings for two years
  • One year in prison suspended for two years.
  • Two years in prison.
  • Three years in prison.
  • Five years in prison.

The judge's verdict: Two years in prison. Would consider carefully a non-custodial sentence.


The defendant is a 25-year-old trainee accountant. He is of previous good character, has a steady job with a leading accountancy firm. His employer has written saying they want to keep him but that he will lose his job if he is sent to prison.

On a night out with friends, he had drunk a considerable amount of alcohol when he went to a nightclub. Another man knocked over his drinks, there was an argument and a scuffle, he swung to hit him and broke the man's nose.

  • Eighty hours community service, £200 compensation, £90 costs.
  • 150 hours community service. Weekly probation meetings for two years.
  • Three month prison sentence.
  • 12 month prison sentence.

The judge's verdict: Community order - 150 hours unpaid work and compensation depending on level of injury. "I wouldn't think seriously about sending this chap into custody".

Did you agree with the judge's verdicts? Where you easier or harder on the defendants? Let us know using the form below or join the debate on Twitter or Facebook .

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