Women's Light Treatment by Judge Prompts Criticism of Sentencing Disparity

May 18th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

A judge in the United Kingdom's treatment of a "talented" young white woman who assaulted her boyfriend has prompted a larger debate about sentencing disparities across racial lines. 

Lavinia Woodward, an Oxford University student punched, kicked, and stabbed her boyfriend, a Cambridge University student, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, according to The Guardian. 

Judge Ian Pringle QC of the Oxford Crown Court said that the September 2016 stabbing was a "one-off" and that he would defer her sentencing for four months so it doesn't prevent her for pursuing her career as a surgeon. She'll instead be sentenced in September of 2017. 

“It seems to me that if this was a one-off, a complete one-off, to prevent this extraordinary able young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to would be a sentence which would be too severe,” he reportedly said.

The judge did admit that normally someone who behaved like Woodward would receive jail time or forced rehabilitation. 

“What you did will never, I know, leave you, but it was pretty awful, and normally it would attract a custodial sentence, whether it is immediate or suspended,” he reportedly told the court said.

Oxford University told the court it will take back Woodward — who herself has been a victim of domestic violence, according to her lawyers — because of her immense academic talent. 

The judge's comments about Woodward led to a debate about inequality in the U.K criminal justice system. 










Ethnic and racial minorities in the U.K. don't receive the same leniency. 

A 2013 Ministry of Justice report found that white people convicted of a crime in the U.K. receive sentences that are an average of seven months shorter than the sentences received by Afro-Carribbeans. The same report showed that black and Asian people sentenced in the U.K. are 20 percent more likely to go to jail. 

The United States recently had a similar conversation about racial disparities in sentencing. 


In the infamous 2016 Brock Turner sexual assault case, California Judge Aaron Perksy sentenced Turner to only six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a party at Stanford University. Turner, who is white, was a decorated collegiate swimmer.

At the sentencing, Persky said he considered both Turner's lack of criminal record before the sexual assault and the character letters written in his support by friends and family.  

"And, also, I have considered the character letters that have been provided by Mr. Turner’s friends, family, which indicate a period of, essentially, good behavior," Persky said according to a transcript by The Guardian. He also said that a long prison sentence would have a negative impact on Turner. 

"Obviously, a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him, and that may be true in any case," said Persky. "I think it’s probably more true with a youthful offender sentenced to state prison at a – at a young age."

The question raised by the exceptionally light sentences given to white offenders is not necessarily 'why were they afforded such lenience?' but rather, 'why aren't people of color?'

Black Americans are more likely to be searched and arrested, and they also receive longer sentences than white Americans. A 2013 study published in the Yale Law Journal found that black men get longer sentences than white men even when their criminal history is the same. 

RELATED: How Jurors Are Defying the Stanford Sexual Assault Case Judge