As the dust around Ken Clarke begins to settle, it could be tempting to think that the criminal justice system now recognises the serious nature of all rapes. On a national level however, rapists and child sex offenders, as with other criminals, still stand to benefit from a proposed "buy one, get one free" attitude to sentencing, whereby an early guilty plea will cut the sentence by half, even before any amendment to the proportion of that sentence that offenders have to serve inside a prison.
That the Government could cut the effective punishment for rapes is far from being the only example of the state viewing rape as less than serious.
One night two years ago in my ward, while you and I were campaigning in County Council elections, an 11-year-old girl who had been playing in the street underwent a horrific sexual assault. In this case the criminal justice system was surprisingly quick, securing a guilty plea to attempted rape and a sentence within six months, but the case had gone to the Youth Court, not the Crown Court, and her 15-year-old assailant’s punishment was a twelve month referral order, a requirement to have regular talks with someone about his offending behaviour – or somewhere between a slap on the wrist and ‘don’t do it again’ (See here for further coverage).
My attempt to refer this unduly lenient sentence to the Attorney General fell at the first hurdle, as the Attorney can refer lenient Crown Court sentences back to the courts, but not those of the Youth Courts. The local Youth Justice System, by not sending the case to the Crown Court, had denied the victim any chance to have the sentence reviewed. Was the crime she suffered not “serious”? Was the impact on her any the less because the person who attacked her was 15, rather than 21?
After being elected, I had the opportunity to be involved in the scrutiny of local attempts to address crime and disorder. My questions revealed the local Constabulary knew that its use of ‘non-court disposals’ for many types of crime was high compared to most forces, and that this was not an accident but the desired result. The Force remained untroubled by the fact that it had in only eight months given cautions, conditional cautions, reprimands or written warnings for almost thirty sex offences against children, including rapes of children under thirteen. So despite the scrutiny, nothing has changed.
If we really believe that all rape is serious, then surely we should ensure that they all come before a court which is competent to sentence them appropriately. Depriving the courts of the ability to sentence these offenders not only denies the victims of these offences justice, but it also risks misleading courts into thinking that some of the cases they currently deal with are somehow less serious.
As successive governments of various political hues have for a generation failed to match public expectations of being tough on crime, those of us who want this to change could become resigned to yet another watering down of punishment, but there is hope of change at a local level.
The advent of directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners who control police priorities and budgets creates a form of democratic local accountability that cannot be simply fobbed off or ignored. They could make the first moves in ensuring local criminal justice systems act to protect all the victims of rape and other serious crimes.