A COURT case reported in a local newspaper (not this one) caught my eye this week.

It was a benefit fraud case of a woman who admitted receiving income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit amounting to £35,012.58 (yes, don’t forget the 58p).

It’s true that cases like this happen all the time and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this one.

But what did jump out at me was the woman’s sentence when she was sent to prison for eight weeks.

Good, I thought, that should teach her a lesson, make her see the error of her ways. But wait, no, she won’t be setting foot inside the local clink. Not for her the trip in the back of the prison van to Styal.

You see, the sentence was suspended for 12 months, effectively rendering it as no sentence at all, in my humble opinion.

Rather than paying for her crime with the loss of her liberty, she was able to walk away from court essentially a free woman.

Yes, she was ordered to pay back the £35,012.58 and that’s fair enough, but where is the element of chastisement here? Where is the retribution, where is the paying for sins and making amends?

I have a sneaky feeling there is a significant difference between how judges view suspended sentences and how criminals see them.

Having sat in on a fair few court cases in my time, I think judges see suspended sentences as a real punishment, the next rung up the ladder in seriousness from community orders and fines and just below sending someone to prison for real.

But for the convicted criminal, I suspect a suspended sentence equates to ‘getting away with it’.

This set me thinking about the whole panorama of crime and punishment.

A couple of years ago, I bumped into a young man I knew who had ‘been away’ for a while – two and a half years, to be precise, for conspiracy to supply cocaine, a class A drug.

He served his time, not the full term, of course, at HMP Altcourse, in Liverpool.

Now Altcourse is a Category B prison so it doesn’t house the worst of offenders and is privately run by G4S (I can’t get my head around prisons being private businesses but I suppose that’s the world we live in now).

How was it for you inside, I asked my young friend.

I was expecting horror stories about slopping out, three to a cell designed for one and being banged up for 23 hours a day.

Fine, he replied, and went on to elaborate that he had a modern, single cell, three healthy meals a day, made some good mates and had Sky TV (yes, Sky TV, including Sky Sports) in his cell.

While he conceded he was in no hurry to go back inside, he was also quite candid that he hadn’t done ‘hard time’ by any stretch of the imagination.

I did wonder if 240 hours of community service would have been more taxing for him, but then again, would you, the great British public, have wanted a convicted drug dealer picking up litter or painting old people’s houses?

So do we want to punish our criminals or rehabilitate them? And just what level of deterrence does prison actually provide?

I remain to be convinced.