Sex offences sentencing overhaul: More emphasis on long-term impact on victims as celebrities have fame used against them

Idea of 'ostensible consent' - in which a child over 13 is said to be able to agree to sex - has also been scrapped
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Celebrities who commit sex-offences could see their public image used against them when being sentenced as part of an overhaul of decade-old sentencing guidance for judges in England and Wales.

 Sex-offenders who are considered to have abused their position of power may be handed longer jail sentences when the guidelines come into effect in April 2014.

Previous “good character” may be considered as an aggravating factor when it has been used to commit a sexual offence, new guidelines drawn up by the Sentencing Council said.

The guidelines cover more than 50 offences including rape, child sex offences and trafficking and focus more on the long-term and psychological impact on victims than the previous 2004 guidelines.

They also introduce a higher starting point for sentences for offences such as rape of 15 years.

The new guidance was drawn up by the Sentencing Council after a public consultation and research was undertaken with victims groups, medical practitioners, police, NGOs, magistrates and judges.

“Across the justice system, changes have been made to ensure that the alleged offenders' behaviour and the context and circumstances of the incident are scrutinised, rather than the credibility of the victim,” Chief Constable David Whatton, national policing lead for violence and public protection, said.

Other significant changes include the removal of “ostensible consent” from the guidance, that is, the concept that a child over the age of 13 can agree to sex, because the Sentencing Council felt it was the wrong approach to take when looking at the offence as “children do not consent to their own abuse“.

A greater emphasis will also be placed on grooming committed by individuals and gangs.

The guidelines come following a series of high- profile sex offence cases, including revelations about disgraced TV presenter Jimmy Savile, that lead to high numbers of sex attack victims coming forward.

Cases involving grooming gangs in Rochdale and Oxford separately raised questions about social care and attitudes held towards victims.

Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy said the new guidelines will make real changes to the way in which offenders are sentenced for these “very serious, sensitive and complex offences”.

"It will help judges and magistrates sentence in a way which protects our communities from this kind of offending and the suffering it causes”, he said.

The new approach will allow for sentences that reflect what the victim had endured and take in a full profile of what the offender had done, such as grooming victims or abusing trust, he added.

They will also take into account the increased use of technology in sex offending since the previous guidelines were issued.

A new aggravating factor is “recording the crime”, as technological advances have seen filming and photographing victims become increasingly more common in many of the offences committed.

The growth in online offending has led to the Council including offences committed remotely, such as via a webcam, when dealing with crimes such as sexual activity with a child.

Judges will also have to examine aspects such as offenders concealing their real age, grooming via social media or asking children to share indecent photos of themselves.

While the Sentencing Council can recommend a starting point, offenders can still only receive the maximum sentence available at the time the offence was committed.

Barnardo's deputy director of strategy Alison Worsley said: “It is difficult to imagine the torment experienced by the vulnerable victims of crimes such as these.

”The publication of this new sentencing guideline will help to ensure the focus is on the perpetrator and not the victim.”

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said there are long waiting lists for sex offence treatment programmes in prisons and, despite the Sentencing Council recognising internet-based offending, there are currently no treatment programmes available which address this in prison.

“This poses a significant challenge to indeterminate sentenced prisoners who have to satisfy the Parole Board that they are no longer a risk”, she said.

”Supportive services in the community such as CirclesUK provide an important contribution to rehabilitation, enabling people to take greater responsibility and reducing their level of risk.“

Victims' commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove, whose husband Garry was killed by a gang vandalising his car, said: ”These guidelines highlight how vital it is for the court to fully consider the physical and emotional trauma that a victim goes through before making a decision.“

Carolyn Hodrien, lead on rape and sexual offences for independent charity Victim Support, said they welcomed the greater focus the guidelines placed on the impact on the victim.

”It takes real courage for a victim to report these horrific crimes and it is vital they know that the criminal justice system will focus on the credibility of their evidence and the long-term impact the crime has had on them, not their perceived vulnerabilities.“

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said sentencing should reflect the severe damage caused by "highly manipulative and devious sex offenders", who abuse positions of trust or their status as a celebrity to target children.

“Increasingly technology is playing a part in the way offenders seek out and groom children, who may attempt suicide or self-harm as a result of their abuse.

”The outdated view that children can in some way be complicit in their abuse must be stamped out. The new guidance is a step in the right direction towards addressing this terrible myth.“

Additional reporting by Press Association