Stormont Question Over Shoplifter Sentence

The Chairman of the North's Justice Committee has tabled questions about a young mother from the border town of Strabane who was handed down a three-month jail sentence this week.

Alison Hewitt, 27, from Patterson Park - who had no previous criminal record - didn't expect a custodial sentence after she was unanimously found guilty of theft by a jury after a four-day trial at Londonderry Crown Court last December.

When she returned to court for sentencing on Wednesday she was taken off to jail, with her solicitor immediately lodging an appeal, arguing for a community service order instead - due to the "detrimental effect" of a custodial sentence on her three-year-old daughter.

However, the judge said that was a matter for the Court of Appeal and that appeal is now due to be heard on Friday after she appeared for sentencing on Wednesday and was shocked to be led away in handcuffs to spend three months behind bars.

The charges arose after she took three pairs of jeans into the changing room of a shop in Londonderry city centre in 2009. A shop assistant challenged her when she emerged with two pairs.

Ms Hewitt left the shop and was arrested by police outside. A pair of jeans was found in her daughter's pram. She denied stealing them.

In court, the judge in the case described the offence as "calculated and premeditated". He said Hewitt had been given several opportunities to stop the offence when challenged by the shop assistant.

Now, the DUP Chairman of the Assembly's Justice Committee Lord Morrow has tabled questions about the case.

The Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA has tabled a question to the Justice Minister to determine whether this kind of sentence has been handed out in the past.

"This is a case of someone who has stolen property from a shop. There is absolutely no justification for that.

"It is also clear that the lady in question was given several opportunities to admit guilt, but chose to maintain her innocence right throughout the legal process," he said.

"There is no doubt that a three-month prison sentence is a severe punishment for a relatively minor crime, particularly given how leniently much more serious crimes have been treated in the past.

"I have tabled an Assembly Question to the Justice Minister to ascertain how many cases there have been in the past five years where individuals have been sent to prison after stealing items of low value. There must be consistency in sentencing. We need fairness therefore we need to establish if all those convicted of theft for items of less than £10 have received similar sentences," he said this morning, noting that the Justice Committee found that it costs £95,000 per year to house a prisoner in Northern Ireland.

"It must be asked whether it is worth spending nearly £25,000 of public funds to imprison someone for stealing an item costing £10.

"There are dozens of other cases which people will be able to identify, where those involved of serious, and sometimes violent crimes have walked out of court with a metaphorical 'slap on the wrists' and it is these type of crimes which concern the public the most and which they want to see the judicial system getting tough with," concluded Lord Morrow.


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