Pressure is mounting on the Justice Minister to intervene in the case of Alison Hewitt, the young mother who was jailed for stealing a £10 pair of jeans.
Lord Morrow, chairman of the Assembly’s justice committee, has called on David Ford to look into Ms Hewitt’s case after she was sentenced to three months in prison.
Angry members of Ms Hewitt’s family have branded the jail term “sick” and “disgusting”, pointing out that it was the Co Tyrone mother’s first offence.
Meanwhile, Judge Piers Grant, who handed down the sentence, has been criticised for his harsh treatment of Ms Hewitt.
Several MLAs last night condemned his decision as “disproportionate” and “concerning”, saying they will be demanding a thorough explanation of the reasoning behind it.
Ms Hewitt (27), from Patterson Park in Strabane, was unanimously convicted of stealing a pair of jeans worth £10 in August 2009.
She was sentenced to three months in prison following a five-day trial at Londonderry Crown Court, during which Judge Grant called her actions “mean, premeditated and brazen”.
Lord Morrow has asked Mr Ford to determine whether similar sentences have been handed out to other defendants accused of stealing low-value items.
“There is no doubt that a three-month prison sentence is severe for a relatively minor crime, particularly given how leniently much more serious crimes have been treated in the past,” he said.
“I have tabled an Assembly question to the Justice Minister to ascertain how many cases there have been in the past five years where individuals have been sent to prison after stealing items of low value.
“There must be consistency in sentencing. We need fairness, therefore we need to establish if all those convicted of theft for items of less than £10 have received similar sentences.”
He also revealed it could cost up to £25,000 to keep Ms Hewitt in prison for three months. “It must be asked whether it is worth spending nearly £25,000 of public funds to imprison someone for stealing an item costing £10,” he added.
South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt, who sits on the justice committee, said he was “very concerned” about the severity of Ms Hewitt’s sentence.
“It begs the question of proportionality,” he said.
“I think the vast majority of MLAs are concerned about it.
“While we have to respect the independence of judges in handing down sentences, these must be proportionate to the crime.
“Questions need to be explored in terms of why this sentence was handed down, because a lot of people will not understand why such a harsh sentence was given for a seemingly minor crime.
“You get the situation where people see things like this and they begin to lose faith in the justice system as a whole.”
A spokesman for the Public Prosecution Service said the decision to prosecute Ms Hewitt was “a proportionate response to an offence of this nature”, adding, “theft is a serious offence”.
Ms Hewitt’s family have condemned her jail term as “totally shocking”, saying she did not deserve to be sent to prison.
She is expected to appeal.