Tougher sex offence sentences proposed

  • 6 December 2012
  • From the section UK
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A child with his head in his hands
Image caption At the moment, the physical impact of an assault is the main factor in sentencing offenders

Sentences for rapists and other sex offenders in England and Wales could become tougher to recognise the long-term psychological harm they cause.

The Sentencing Council also suggests judges could give longer sentences to offenders who film their victims.

In a new consultation, the body says judges should closely consider the complex and damaging effect that a crime has on a victim.

The proposed new guidelines cover virtually all sexual offences.

The Sentencing Council is responsible for trying to ensure consistency in criminal sentencing across all courts in England and Wales and it draws up complex guidelines to assist judges.

The council said that its proposed guidelines for sexual offences aim to update the way the courts deal with 54 crimes, to take into account the tactics and technologies used by offenders, as well as the long-term damage done to a victim.

The guidelines cover almost every sexual offence that is recognised in the UK, from voyeurism to rape, and, if adopted, would play a key role in dealing with people convicted of historic allegations of sexual abuse when victims have come forward decades after the event.

In the 14-week consultation, the council said that judges should be able to send offenders to jail for longer where modern technology proves to be an aggravating factor in increasing the victim's suffering - such as filming abuse of a sexual assault and then distributing it to others.

Judges are concerned that they have seen a worrying increase in the number of cases where rapists have filmed their attack and the victim.

Previously the focus in sentencing has been largely on the physical act of the crime, such as which part of a body was violated, because the law defines each individual offence in a quite technical way.

The council's new guidelines make clear that this form of sentencing does not take sufficient account the potentially catastrophic long-term effect on the victim.

Increased sentences

Under the new guidelines, judges would also be able to jail those guilty of so-called "one-off" rapes for a maximum of 19 years, a sentence that is currently only for offenders who attack more than once.

Judges can also take into account the behaviour of an offender before the specific offence, such as whether they use drugs and alcohol as part of their targeting.

Image caption Lord Justice Treacy says victims must be central to sentences handed down by judges

Sentencing for sexual offences against children should also look at how the victim has been groomed or whether the assailant was in a position of trust.

Lord Justice Treacy of the council said: "We're improving guidance for courts to help them deal with these incredibly complex, sensitive and serious offences.

"The perspective of victims is central to the council's considerations. We want to ensure sentences reflect everything the victim has been through and what the offender has done.

"We are looking at the whole context, not just the physical offence but also the tactics employed by offenders like grooming activity, the targeting of vulnerable victims or abuse of a position of trust.

"No one wants more people becoming victims, so protecting the public is a vital part of our proposals, whether this is by jailing offenders or through rigorous treatment to stop them reoffending."

Psychological impact is already taken into consideration in assault and burglary guidelines, but Lord Justice Treacy told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "current [sexual offence] guidelines don't concentrate enough on the perspective of victims".

Sense of responsibility

Sexual violence campaigner Jill Saward, who was raped by two burglars who broke into her home in Ealing, London, in 1986, welcomed the proposals.

"For too long, the impact that [sexual violence] has had on victims has been neglected in the whole justice process," she said.

In the aftermath of her attack, she saw a psychotherapist, a psycho-analyst and psychiatrist, but that was not mentioned in court, she said.

At the sentencing of her attackers, Mr Justice Leonard said that her trauma "had not been so great" - a comment he was censured for and apologised for later in his life.

"That reflected how little understanding there was. I'd been suicidal three times, I'd had post-traumatic stress disorder, which wasn't really recognised then," she said.

She added that victims often felt a sense of responsibility to other potential victims, and were relieved when their rapist was locked up for a long time, thereby preventing further attacks.

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