Fairer sentencing for driving deaths
HE family of Stacey Muldoon can never forget July 8, 2008. The 23-year-old shop assistant from Lanarkshire was on a night-out when she and a friend accepted a lift from a man called Robert Park. A few minutes later, Park, who had taken drugs and alcohol, had no licence, and was doing over 50mph in a 30mph zone, lost control, crashed into a lamp-post and Ms Muldoon was killed. And the punishment? Park was jailed for six years but released after three.
The frustration and anger of Ms Muldoon’s family at that sentence is entirely understandable. Her sister Leigh Payne says she has had to cope with the sight of Park, now a free man, out and about in the streets; she also cannot understand why Park was not given a longer term in jail. “It’s so frustrating for us as a family to think that someone convicted of manslaughter gets seven or eight years more than the chap who killed my sister,” she says. “These people have done exactly the same as someone who used a knife or a gun, except they’ve used a car.”
The logic of Ms Payne’s argument is hard to avoid, and figures obtained by The Herald support it: sentencing on serious driving offences appears to be inconsistent at best and lenient at worst.
According to the figures, only one out of 11 drivers so far convicted of causing death by careless driving in Scotland last year have been jailed. Of the remaining 10, three were fined between £1,000 and £5,000 and the other seven were given community service.
As for death by dangerous driving, four drivers have so far been convicted in relation to charges brought in 2015/16 and while all were jailed, their sentences were mostly for under four years.
The Ministry of Justice knows there is a problem here and is running a consultation on tougher penalties, the aim of which has to be to improve public confidence through greater consistency and longer sentences for the most serious offences. A long prison term, especially when the conviction rate is low, is not necessarily going to change behaviour. But it is easy to understand why families see the sentences for dangerous and careless driving and conclude that a death caused by driving is seen as less serious than culpable homicide. The point made by Stacey’s sister is also fair: why does death caused by dangerous driving appear to be treated less seriously than one caused by a gun or a knife?
Consistency in sentencing is also vital. Judges have to be free to take into account particular facts that might justify a more severe or lenient sentence. But it is welcome that death by driving is one of the first areas the new Scottish Sentencing Council is looking into. The aim of any new guidelines must be consistency while retaining the right of a judge to deviate from them because of the facts of a case, as long as he or she explains why.
The aim of any change in the law must also to be to win the confidence of the victims’ relatives and the wider public. Stacey Muldoon’s family do not understand why the man convicted of causing her death served only three years in prison. They, and other families in similar circumstances, must be reassured that serious offences will be seriously punished.