Head Lines with Jonny Mitchell: Comments on killer left me truly aghast

HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.
HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

Now he writes exclusively for us:

Only a little over a week ago, the killer of Ann Maguire, the career teacher who devoted almost 40 years of her life to the service of educating children, was sentenced to life in prison with a recommendation he serve at least 20 years without the hope of parole.

There were very few circles where this news was not welcomed as a just and fair sentence, as far as there can ever be a fair sentence for a brutal killer, irrespective of how old he is or what his underlying mental health or social issues.

There was one circle, however, where the news was not welcome. And that was in the person of Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate and a member of the standing committee of the Youth Justice Board.

I watched aghast when she was interviewed by Harry Gration on Look North the following evening, and as she lambasted the decision as disproportionate and unfair on the killer.

First of all, she was dismayed that the killer had been named, and she feared that he would never have the opportunity of being properly rehabilitated in the future and be able to “live down” his crime. With a new identity, as was the case for the killers of James Bulger, this will always be possible, I think.

Secondly, she felt the sentence was excessive. Life with a minimum of 20 years was simply a punishment, and not in keeping with the principles of the criminal justice system, which are based on rehabilitation. In this case, for rehabilitation, read “a second chance”. Did Ann Maguire receive a second chance?

I, for once, was puzzled. There have been so many stories in recent years of murderers being released after serving short sentences, presumably on account of good behaviour, and having satisfied the parole board that they were rehabilitated and ready to re-enter society at large, only for them to re-offend, often with disastrous consequences for families up and down the land. Do people like this learn nothing from these experiences?

What got my goat, though, more than anything she said about the sentence or naming him, was her claim that this “poor boy” (in her words) had had his life ruined by the actions of the sentencing judge. He would never be able to lead a full and normal life after his incarceration.

Yes, even Harry winced audibly when she uttered the words. I, for my part, was gobsmacked.

Now, there is no point going overboard with this – these comments have no bearing on Cornick’s fate, but it is concerning that people in some position of authority should come out quite openly with such sentiments.

In one respect, she is correct – the criminal justice system should ensure, as far as possible, that the public can be safe, and has a duty to facilitate rehabilitation. However, in such a high-profile and horrific case, the judge clearly had no choice but to hand down the maximum sentence available to him. Let’s face it, Cornick will now have 20 years during which he can be rehabilitated, after which time he may be eligible for release on parole, at the ripe old age of 36, and probably with a new identity. Whether he ever emerges from prison is open to question when the time comes.

In response to her claim that Cornick’s mental health issues were not well served by the decision, surely an assessment of those would have led to other recommendations around the location of his imprisonment?

On a separate point, it was nice to see a response to one of my columns in the letters pages recently – certainly a discussion point on schools providing work for absent students on which they can be tested on their return. If they fail their “test”, then the parents can be fined.

I do have an issue with it, clearly. Simply because I do not condone absence from school for family holidays full-stop. Perhaps families with bright students will actually be encouraged to take term-time holidays if they know there is little risk of being fined. Those with children who find tests difficult would face a horrible dilemma.

And we are about equality of opportunity, after all.