The court of appeal has given what it described as a “final opportunity” to a prolific thief, reducing his 7 year prison sentence to probation on the advice of social workers.

In 2019, Matthew Portelli, 35, had been convicted of being one of a gang of thieves who had targeted 10 service stations, a tools store and two vehicles in various localities around Malta during a three-month theft spree in 2011.

The gang were also allegedly behind the setting alight of one of the stolen vehicles, a Ford Transit, which had been used in one of their raids and later set on fire in Wied is-Sewda, Qormi.

The thieves were arrested and prosecuted, with proceedings against Portelli being assigned in November 2018 to another Magistrates’ Court.

In January 2019, Portelli had registered an admission to all the charges against him – which filled six pages –  apart from three relating to the arson attack on the stolen van, the theft of the registration plates affixed to the van as well the intention to destroy material traces of a crime.

He was jailed for 7 years as a result, but had filed an appeal, arguing that the punishment inflicted was excessive.

In a decision handed down this morning, the Court of Criminal Appeal, presided by Madame Justice Edwina Grima, noted that the appellant’s admission of guilty was made at a late stage in the proceedings, and weighed this admission against his fractious criminal record as well as the passage of time since the crimes were committed.

The judge said she agreed with the reasoning of the Court of Magistrates in its handing down of a 7 year prison sentence, but said the appellant had also produced evidence showing him to have changed his life path and that imprisonment would be counter-productive.

It was noted that a probation officer had reported the man as having settled down into a stable life with his partner and children and that a community-based punishment was recommended in this case. This together with a Social Inquiry Report which had observed that Portelli had relapsed into criminality thanks to the company he kept, who were also the accomplices in the crimes he was convicted of, and who he no longer had contact with.

The court observed that the UK Criminal Justice Act 2003 established principles for the imposition of punishment. The judiciary should not only protect the interests of the condemned person, but also those of the victim or victims and society in general by giving a sentence which serves to punish offenders, lead to the reduction of other crimes and possibly lead to the rehabilitation and reform of the guilty party, which protects the public and which made the guilty party make reparations for his crimes, it said.

The court also noted that the majority of the victims “did not even remember” being robbed.

Portelli had been involved in another brush with the law in 2018 after many years away from criminality and this had catalysed his realisation that he was wrong and the importance of concretising the reform in his life, said the judge. “Therefore although it is true that the appellant was found guilty of a large number of thefts from several petrol stations, these crimes date back to 2011 and from that time onwards he had recognised the importance of distancing himself from a life of crime, apart from a pending case on attempted theft in 2018 which is still sub judice.”

The court said it could not ignore the reports by professionals who worked with the appellant and who were all recommending that he not be incarcerated. “Therefore [the court] will be adopting their recommendations made during the revision stage and so to give the appellant the last opportunity to move away from a life of crime entirely…”

Portelli’s sentence was revised down to 3 years probation. However, the man’s €5000 bail bond was still confiscated and he was also ordered to pay an additional €1662 for the appointment of court experts.

Lawyers Veronique Dalli and Dean Hili were legal counsel to Portelli.

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