Lavinia Woodward, 24, has led a difficult life. Addicted to drugs and a victim of domestic abuse, Woodward attempted to build a better life for herself as a student at Christ Church College at Oxford University and an aspiring heart surgeon. These aspirations may have been jeopardized when Woodward stabbed her then-boyfriend in a drug-fueled episode with a butter knife after punching him, hurling a laptop, and throwing a glass mason jar at him.
Woodward admitted to wounding the man, whom she met on the dating app Tinder, in Oxford Crown Court. In England, Crown Court is where defendants face a judge and jury in criminal trials.
She stood before Crown Court Judge Ian Pringle. Pringle took a nuanced approach when mulling over the case. Woodward is a first time offender, and the effect of prison time on the CV of an Oxford Student would be devastating and would likely end her career before it started.
“It seems to me that if this was a one-off, a complete one-off, to prevent this extraordinary able young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to would be a sentence which would be too severe,” he said. Pringle has deferred her sentence for four months, giving her time to get off drugs. The judge’s comments hint at the fact that a non-custodial sentence may be given in light of the circumstances.
These statements have garnered responses across the spectrum. Some see the leniency as special treatment due to Woodward’s status as an esteemed student at Oxford. Others, however, see it as a judge taking a nuanced approach to the case, rather than simply throwing the book at the young woman.
The Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Francis FitzGibbon was interviewed on BBC’s Today Programme where he explained the unusual nature of the case.
“The judge must take into account determination or demonstration of steps to address addiction, so it sounds as though he’s giving her a chance and I think the judge would do that for anyone wherever they came from in the right circumstances,” FitzGibbon said.
Some are pointing to a case at the less-affluent Durham University to prove Woodward received special treatment. Well-respected Durham student Samuel Bunyan had been out drinking with a woman who later invited him to her apartment to watch a movie. After the woman fell asleep, Bunyan touched her sexually. Both individuals admitted to being heavily intoxicated. The judge in this case immediately ordered Bunyan to prison and he was put on a sex offender registry indefinitely.
While accusations of special-treatment are entirely speculative, the case is evidence that judges who simply go by-the-book without considering special circumstances, can drastically impact the lives of young first-time offenders who will be branded as criminals for the rest of their lives.
The high-stress world of university life often leads to abuse of drugs and alcohol and students can wind up harming each other. This does not excuse the criminal behavior but adds a layer of complexity that is worthy of consideration by judges.
Judge Pringle represents the sort of nuance and objectivity too often forgotten in the world of criminal justice. The U.S. has minimum sentencing requirements for violent offenses, which makes sense on paper. However, these requirements take the power from judges to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis while considering special circumstances.
The United Kingdom has a prison population of over 85,000. They are second only to the United States when it comes to incarceration rates. While surely many of those imprisoned in the UK are there deservedly, non-violent drug offenses account for 15% of the proportion of prisoners.
In the majority of cases, those sent to prison for drug offenses are unable to find employment after their release, which often leads individuals back to drug use and then reoffending. While it is important that justice be served, it must be served thoughtfully and reasonably for the benefit of all involved. Prison is better reserved for those that pose a threat to the public. After all, is it truly justice if the punishment doesn’t fit the crime?
The UK’s gung-ho attitude towards prison has lead to absurd cases such as a man who was jailed for letting a toddler smoke a cigarette, a woman who was jailed for lying on a job application and two men jailed for killing a hedgehog. While these crimes should not be completely ignored, jail-time seems like using an assault rifle to kill a spider.
The possibility of a lenient sentence for Woodward appears ridiculous to some. However, it may serve as an example of a more logical, humane and intelligent way to handle cases of those who are first-time offenders and not hardened career criminals. While Woodward surely must face justice, perhaps true justice is found somewhere outside of prison walls.