Letter: Length of sentences for sex offenders

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Sir: Recent controversies over the probation orders received by two men convicted of sexual abuse of children have led to calls for judges to be given increased powers to deal with sex offenders.

However, as Heather Mills's report ('Sentence on sex offender must stand', 3 August) suggests, there was little to prevent the judge in either case from imposing a lengthy custodial sentence on the offenders concerned. The 1991 Criminal Justice Act explicitly empowers judges to pass more severe sentences on sexual offenders. Although it is too early to be sure of the effect of the Act on sentencing patterns, it is clear that, contrary to popular belief, sentencing of sex offenders has become increasingly punitive over the past 10 years.

There is no doubt that the suffering of victims of sexual crime has been grossly undervalued by the courts. However, the assumption that automatic custodial sentences for sex offenders are the most helpful response to sexual crime must be questioned. It is noticeable that groups such as Women Against Rape have been careful not to ally themselves to calls for tougher sentencing.

It is difficult to believe that the sentence of four months' imprisonment passed on one offender by the Court of Appeal last week will be more effective in protecting society and addressing the reasons for his offending than the probation order that was originally imposed by the judge.

Despite improvements in prison-based treatments for sex offenders, treatment in prison is only available to prisoners serving lengthy sentences. For less serious offenders, the choice is between treatment in the community or no treatment at all.

The recent hysteria about crime has disguised the fact that there is little evidence of any increase in the real rate of sexual offending. That does not mean that we should be complacent about the threat posed to society by many sexual offenders. But we have a responsibility to ensure that the sentences handed out by the courts do not place society's desire for punishment above the need to minimise the risk of further offending.

Yours faithfully,

ADAM SAMPSON

Deputy Director

Prison Reform Trust

London, N1

3 August

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