Too posh for prison

6 August 2013
Louisa Bassini

Charges of intentionally causing injury were heard last month in the Melbourne Magistrates Court against 27-year-old Liam Danial Sweeney. During sentencing, the magistrate made some unusually frank statements about his assessment of the matter. In doing so, for a moment he exposed a reality that is usually well hidden in the criminal justice system: some people matter and some people don’t.

Sweeney, an aspiring corporate lawyer with a prominent barrister father, pleaded guilty to twice punching and smashing a wine glass into the face of another man, in what the prosecution described as an “unprovoked and gratuitous” assault. Magistrate Jack Vandersteen identified Sweeney’s class background, career prospects and well-to-do family as reasons why a jail sentence was an inappropriate punishment for Sweeney (though the charges carried a maximum of 10 years in jail).

Vandersteen told Sweeney’s barrister, “I don’t think he’d last very long [in jail] … Not many people are in jail who went to Haileybury [a prestigious private school] or who had your client’s privileged background.” Sweeney’s barrister added, “or who look like him”. Vandersteen also sympathised with Sweeney’s parents, pointing out that it must be “extremely devastating” for them to see him in court.

Similar incidents of alcohol-related street violence are frequently prosecuted. Rarely is such leniency shown to offenders or such concern displayed for the emotional experience of their parents. Rather, there is nearly universal consensus among the media, police and politicians that harsher punishment and longer jail terms are necessary to stem a problem in “our streets”.

To take just one example, 19-year-old Cinar Peker also pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates Court to recklessly causing serious injury in a fight in the Melbourne CBD – a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 24 months. Peker was 18 at the time of the offence. The court heard he suffered from bipolar disorder and ADHD and had no prior criminal history.

In sentencing Peker to 18 months in prison, the magistrate explained, “If young men, fuelled by alcohol or other substances, engage in gratuitous, unbridled acts of violence on our streets or other public places they will, unless ‘exceptional’ circumstances exist, go to prison for a substantial period of time.”

The magistrate flatly rejected any suggestion that Peker’s youth or lack of prior offending should save him from prison. He went as far as saying that he would have sent him away for two years had it not been for his guilty plea. The next day the newspapers declared that a “young thug” had been handed a lesson.

Peker did not have a promising legal career or barrister father. The magistrate noted that he had a “troubled upbringing”. His schooling was not noteworthy and his actions were not assumed to be of negative impact to his family, though they were present in court and indicated their support for him.

In the criminal justice system, Cinar Peker, and thousands others like him, are people to be made an example of. Liam Sweeney, on the other hand, finds himself in the “exceptional” circumstance of being rich and well connected.

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