Law & Crime Opinion

Why Hong Kong’s sentencing practices are missing a sense of proportion

Here’s an interesting quiz, though it gets a mite depressing later. I briefly summarise five recent cases from the criminal courts:

  1. A man tried to strangle a nurse. She was a tough cookie and fought him off.
  2. Another man, aged 31, molested a boy for four years, starting when the victim was aged ten. Most of the offences were filmed.
  3. A domestic helper tried to poison her employer by peeing in her drinking water.
  4. A 15-year-old girl was caught carrying a small suitcase full of cocaine across the border.
  5. A woman had a row with her 83-year-old father and inflicted multiple injuries on his head with a meat cleaver.
statue of justice court

Photo: Court of Final Appeal.

Now, using your skill and observation, as we used to say on the flagrantly gambling “spot the ball” competitions in English evening newspapers, which defendant do you think was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison?

Was it the Wicked Uncle Ernie, who for years abused an unsuspecting infant? Was it one of the three people who tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to kill people who had annoyed them? No. That’s trivial stuff. The decade and a half of porridge was given to the kid, one Hui Ching-yi.

In fairness to the judge concerned, Mr Justice Lee Wan-tang – who seems to be following in the footsteps of Lord Goddard, if not of George Jeffreys – the law’s delays had taken their usual toll by the time of the trial, so the girl was 17 when sentenced.

police july 1 democracy rally protest march

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

That is of course still too young to drive, vote, marry without your parents’ consent or buy a beer. But it is not too young to feel the effects of Hong Kong’s barbaric and ineffective approach to the proverbial war on drugs, on which more detail here.

Whatever the merits of passing inordinately long sentences on adults, there can surely be no justification for treating a child like this.

Most of us did things which were stupid, or illegal, or both, when we were 15. I understand the point that judges are not allowed to consider probation for a drugs offence. Something custodial may be unavoidable.

This hardly justifies sending a young person to prison for longer than she has been on this earth. I note also that she had pleaded guilty and cooperated with police inquiries. So the 17.5 years came after a discount.

As is often the case in matters of this kind the girl had an appalling family background.

Court of Final Appeal

Court of Final Appeal. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Here you will find a list of Hong Kong’s “most infamous criminals”. Most of them are serial killers. The two who were not are former Chief Superintendent Peter Godber (four years for corruption) and Carson Yeung (six years for money laundering).

There is something missing in Hong Kong’s sentencing practices, and it seems to be a sense of proportion. One can, I suppose, hope that the young lady can appeal. I suspect, though, that Mr Lee was following some deplorable guideline from the Court of Appeal.

Well, it is nice to have an independent judiciary. One could wish they were a little less independent of common humanity. Don’t tell me you’re just doing your jobs. Nobody forced you to become a judge. Inflicting punishments like this on erring teenagers is just legalised child abuse.

Why Hong Kong's sentencing practices are missing a sense of proportion