The Sentencing Council has this morning, published a new set of guidelines advising courts to jail offenders breaching court orders, including sexual harm prevention orders and non molestation orders. The guidelines will come into effect on 1st October, 2018.

The guidance comes after an investigation by The Sentencing Council found that courts were routinely imposing penalties far below the recommended maximum allowed by law.

A consultation launched by The Sentencing Council confirmed that virtually no data was currently available on the types of orders breached, and  information about those breaches was also no collected or stored.  The consultation also reveals a further, deeply concerning issue: entrenched cultural views inside the criminal justice system around sex abuse and how the crime is perceived by professionals inside the court system. Whilst the Sentencing Council is clearly advocating for jail time where sex offenders breach an order, the majority of respondents in the consultation took the view that the current sentences being passed down in cases like these, were adequate. Here’s an extract from the report:

“The majority of respondents believed the [sex offence] penalties to be proportionate, although a small proportion thought in some cases they were too lenient. As already noted, some respondents did not approve of the proposals and thought the penalties were too high, noting a marked difference between sentences in existing guidance.”

This view exists, despite the fact that studies have shown a growing concern about the UK’s sentencing of sex offenders, both in relation to how judges currently decide penalties and the outdated way in which the law operates in this area.

The idea that sex abuse is still not considered a serious offence by judges is something that needs to be investigated, separately, in another consultation.

Another issue aggravating sentencing decisions stems around the current crisis in our prisons. Overcrowded and under resourced, judges and police have been trying to address the problem by sparing offenders jail. Allowing sex offenders to walk free purely because our prisons and our police force can’t cope with the demand should never be allowed.

The guidelines published today do not represent a landmark move towards greater protection of vulnerable men and women and the public at large. The Council issued guidance in February of this year, calling on tougher penalties and jail time for domestic abuse offenders, however there seems to have been little uptake on these guidelines, which have now been in force for over four months.

Until the government addresses the cultural problems inside the system guidelines like these will remain largely unused. Researching Reform suggests judges should be given rigorous training on the characteristics and impact of sexual abuse, as well as listening to presentations by victims of abuse, in order to understand the crime better.

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