Summary: NSPCC Report Sentencing UK

This summary seeks to draw together the key issues identified during our work and to provide a brief summary of our findings. A fuller explanation can be found in the main body of this report.

Questions about the effectiveness and appropriateness of sentences for those who commit sexual or violent offences against children or offences of cruelty/neglect are very difficult to answer.

The first part of the report seeks to show that it is difficult to measure the amount of offending against children, and that public perceptions do not always accord with reality. There is a marked discrepancy between media reports and the perceptions these create in the minds of many of the general public and what occurs in practice.

The sources of these misconceptions can be summarised as:

  1. Media reporting of sentencing decisions that is often misleading.
  2. The public perception that the crime rate is increasing when in fact it has been steadily reducing.
  3. The impression that “stranger danger” is the higher risk in respect of sexual offending against children, whereas evidence shows that approximately 80% of sexual offences against children are committed within the family or by persons known to the child/ren (often in positions of trust).
  4. A widespread belief that sentences are too lenient, whereas they have been getting longer in recent years, and the prison population has been increasing (from 64,602 in 2000 to 84,275 in 2010, for example: see Berman, Gavin (2011) Prison population statistics (PDF).  [London]: House of Commons Library). By comparison, in France, with the same population as Britain, prison numbers are 59,655 and in Germany with over 20 million more people, 72,043.
  5. Perhaps the most commonly misreported and misunderstood sentences imposed are indeterminate sentences.
  6. Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). is often reported along the lines of “Only 7 years for raping a 6 year old!” leading to a sense of appalled indignation, disbelief and loss of faith in the criminal justice system. Reporting the IPP sentence imposed on the mother of Baby Peter the Daily Mail said:

    “Free in three years? Outrage as mother of Baby P is given a ‘soft’ jail sentence” and “The official line is that she has been jailed ‘indefinitely’. But in reality she could be out in three years.”

    In fact an IPP is an indeterminate sentence, i.e. a sentence potentially without end (a life sentence) from which the prisoner will not be released until he satisfies the Parole Board that his risk of harm to others is reduced and can be managed.

    The minimum term or tariff is the earliest the offender can be considered for release. A reduction of the risk of harm has to be evidenced to the Parole Board. However, due to a lack of resources many prisons are struggling to provide the programmes that are one means by which some offenders can demonstrate risk reduction. (See section F in the full report, for release on licence).

Sentencing of offenders is a complex exercise. In addition to having regard to the five statutory purposes of sentencing (see paragraph C:11 in the full report), a judge or magistrate will consider the seriousness of the offence, the offender’s previous convictions, aggravating or mitigating factors, personal mitigation, whether and at what stage a guilty plea has been entered, totality (where an offender is being sentenced for more than one offence), the relevant law and any relevant sentencing guidelines. The report seeks to explain these complexities by looking in detail at what has become known as the “Baby Peter case” (see HHJ Kramer QC’s sentencing remarks in R v B, C and Owen (Baby Peter), Appendix 1 in the full report).

Once a person sentenced to custody is released on licence, he is subject to supervision by the probation service and in the case of most violent and sex offenders, also the police. In many cases nowadays, police and probation officers will undertake joint supervision of violent and sexual offenders utilising the skills and resources of both organisations under MAPPA (multi-agency public protection arrangements). Thus those assessed as presenting a high risk of harm to others are likely to be managed via MAPPA’s multi-agency meetings designed to facilitate the sharing of relevant information and produce an agreed risk management plan that is regularly reviewed. Many additional conditions that either require an offender to do something or prohibit him from doing something are imposed. Failure to adhere to licence conditions frequently results in recall to prison.

The report also reviews treatment and other programmes. We conclude that sentence levels are not in fact as low as many people may believe and nor are re-offending rates as high as people may fear.

Sentencing for sexual or violent offences against children and offences under s1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (PDF, 514KB)

Please cite as: NSPCC (2011) Sentencing for sexual or violent offences against children and offences under s1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.  London: NSPCC.

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