Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

It isn't just about a pair of jeans, it's also about justice

Alison Hewitt (27) from Strabane, jailed at Derry Court for stealing a ten pounds pair of jeans.

The three-month imprisonment sentence handed down to Strabane mum Alison Hewitt does appear disproportionate to the offence of stealing a £10 pair of jeans.

More so, considering Hewitt had no previous convictions.

But if the sentence seems over the top, some of the responses to it have been hysterical also.

Ms Hewitt, who is out on bail after two nights inside, is not an innocent victim of the legal system.

She is a guilty victim of it.

A jury heard all the evidence and after a four-day trial decided she was guilty.

She stole the jeans.

Just because the jeans were pilfered from a shop and not snatched from across the back of your sofa doesn't mean they weren't stolen.

Just because the ten pounds were in the form of goods rather than a tenner grabbed from the till, or lifted from out of your pocket while you were at the bar, doesn't mean it wasn't ten pounds. I don't know about you, but I would certainly miss ten pounds out of my life. I'm not that flush, honey.

Ms Hewitt was found guilty. She stole the goods and chose, moreover, a rather unsympathetic way of making off with the loot - stashing it in her child's buggy.

But three months' imprisonment? Disproportionate? Obviously. Modest fines are handed out for assault, drunken and disorderly behaviour, threats and menaces, indecent exposure in the public thoroughfare and even failure to pay TV licences - more cash nicked from your and my purse.

There comes a point where the detail of the law, however correctly observed, leaves that thing we call 'justice' open to ridicule and scandal.

This has occurred in the Hewitt case. No amount of bluster or sniffiness or 'hoping it goes away' is going to persuade the public that justice was seen to be done in the case of this unfortunate woman and her even more unfortunate and wholly innocent child.

You might say, well, what about murderers who have children, should they not go to prison?

You might say the child has nothing to do with it. You might. And some have. And you and they would be wrong. It all goes back to proportion and the lack of it in this case.

Hewitt - and her legal advisers - took this to the Crown Court. A four-day trial, with dozens of people inconvenienced at a huge cost to the public purse. And all, it seems, for a £10 pair of jeans.

Except, it's only now we know she is guilty. Until the verdict, we didn't know that at all.

What would we be saying had the jury returned a verdict of 'not guilty'? Would we not be praising a legal system which could muster the full force of the state in defence of a mother and child in the teeth of wrongful accusation? I hope we would.

Sir Edward Carson in the Archer-Shee case brought the Crown to book over the wrongful accusation of theft of a five-pound postal order. Where innocence is concerned, the scale of the crime is irrelevant - it's the damage the charge inflicts which must be challenged and righted.

It is a fundamental right to have your case tried by Crown Court and higher if needs be.

Yes, it took the guts of two years for Alison Hewitt's case to come to court. It would be tempting to bite the bullet and give magistrate courts sole control over shoplifting cases and all of what we call petty crime.

I'm not so sure. The crimes may be 'petty' - 'petit', small - but the accusations can last a lifetime. The courts aren't just there to punish the guilty but to protect the innocent.

We can't allow the cost and bother of guilty people to so skew our legal system that we put innocent people at risk of light-touch verdicts which can ruin their lives just as effectively as they do the lives of guilty people.

Even now she's been found guilty, Alison Hewitt should not be returned to prison and separated from her child. Justice would not be served.

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