A twenty year old student from York, Francis Fernie, has been jailed for a year for throwing a stick at the police on 26 March. Specifically, he was found guilty of violent disorder.

A year seemed to me to be an extraordinarily long time to me for such an offence. But these are the sorts of things most of us don’t really have a handle on – what is normal for this type of crime? Let’s imagine that he had done the exact same thing, but not done it at a demo.

Well, throwing a stick at someone is basically common assault – certainly I think most people would think it is. If we look at the Crown Prosecution Service guidance on punishments for this crime, the maximum sentence is 6 months. This is the maximum. The guidance is clear that there are various factors that show how severe it is – the main one being the level of injury. I haven’t seen any evidence that anyone was injured by this crime.

Similarly, it would be normal for a reduction of sentence in this case because the defendent peaded guilty. The fact that he handed himself in may also reduce his sentence, we might think? So a defendent who commited a common assault, did not injure anyone, then handed themselves in and pleaded guilty – what would they get? Certainly much less than the maximum of 6 months.

Or should we take into account the fact that it’s assault on a police officer? The law does usually make that sort of distinction. In fact, they have seperate guidance for this sort of thing – see “Assault on Constable in the execution of his/her duty, contrary to section 89(1) Police Act 1996” which says:

“24) The fact that the victim is a police officer is not, in itself, an exceptional reason for charging an offence contrary to section 47 when the injuries are minor”

So that isn’t relevant. And the maximum for this is 6 months too anyway.

Looking at the guidance into violent disorder – the crime for which he was charged – it appears that the fact that he was a part of a crowd is the relevant factor.

Now, I’m not an expert, but that seems bizarre. Essentially, for a crime for which under normal circumstances he would have got a maximum sentence of 6 months – and probably much less – he is has been sentenced with a full year in jail simply because he was in a crowd. Is that really a rational way to apply the law?

Or is the judge giving him a harsher sentence because the large crowd he was in was a demonstration – because it was political?

According to the York Press:

‘the judge said the right to peaceful demonstration was a “hallmark” of this country’s democracy, but added: “The courts have a duty not only to punish those who inflict violence or acts of fear on the public or inflict violence on the police, but also to deter others from behaving in such a way.’

Why should this detterence apply to crimes comitted by people at demos but not to other violent crimes?