On class, prison and Lavinia Woodward

So here we have it, as we knew would happen, Oxford student Lavinia Woodward has been spared a prison sentence. And the media is raging.

There is much speculation, condemnation and outrage. What we see is the classism of the legal system laid bare.

But this is not news.

One of the key messages of Injustice is that throughout history the criminal law has been designed to regulate the poor and warehouse the working class. We know that the vast majority of senior judges are from Oxbridge and we know the vast majority of prisoners are working class men.

Woodward’s case highlights the contradictions of the legal system and the hypocrisy of many campaigners. There is a notable silence among some groups we might expect to comment on the nature of the crime, but at base the judges have been clear about their rationale. She is “one of us” so shouldn’t be imprisoned.

One of the most outrageous comments from the sentencing judge was that he applauded her breaking her bail conditions “to apologise”. One can imagine – and the author knows of other cases – where a working class man making the same apology would have been regarded as an instance of continued harassment and would have been detrimental rather than a boon.

Yes there is legal reasoning behind he judgement and the reluctance to imprison is reasonable to a degree. Within the law the judge is probably correct. But, for instance, the Mankind Initiative’s position is also correct.

Yet the way the debate is unfolding is unhealthy. The logic is that as working class people suffer unjust sentencing, so should she.

But this presents us with a missed opportunity.

I am angry. Very angry. I wanted to express my disdain, to goad the silent organisations and shine a light on the hypocrisy. But instead when the story first broke I wrote to the defendant to express my sympathy for the way she is being hounded – I don’t think she ever received the email.

What we must do is use the case to rage against imprisonment of working class people. We must use the example to judge the judges. We must point to how above anything else material class inequality is the defining schism that determines one’s place in the criminal justice system and society more broadly.

We must insist that the class basis of the judicial system and broader society is addressed. We must realise that race and gender are crucial modifiers but nothing trumps class as a determinant.

We must shout that this is normal. It happens every single day and must stop.

If the judge has based his reasoning on her capacity to create a good life, what should be our response – to destroy her life or to demand that sentencing is changed for working class people so that they are offered the same sorts of opportunities to build their own lifes? Can’t we now turn to judges and demand that they focus on the well-being and life opportunities of those convicted?

The defendant is not individually responsible for her class location. Class is an objective category in a system that individuals have no control over. Ad hominem attacks help nobody. Sending her to prison will change nothing. Woodward’s case perfectly exposes the state’s class basis and it is this, not an individual that needs to be broken.

To remain analytical is not an easy task but we but think this through. The causes must be diagnosed and a proper response formulated.

We must rage against social inequalities that allow this to happen every day. We must reject a system that allows some to go to Oxford while others are expelled from school and dumped. We must object to institutions that are designed to amplify class privilege, for we would not accept ones that champion class or gender inequality.

We must take note of inequitable access to justice. We must look at the class basis of law and courts themselves and demand change rather than insisting on spreading harm wider.

How about we use this opportunity to suggest that if her circumstances are regarded as likely to prevent re-offending we offer those circumstances to those less privileged?

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