And you will fix this how, exactly?
Criminal justice, especially for sexual offences against women and girls, is much in the news lately. See Labour’s ad accusing the Prime Minister of being soft on child abusers, remarkable since Sunak has been PM less than 6 months, not enough time for a sex abuse case to be investigated let alone go to trial. Not to be outdone, during his election campaign, Scotland’s new First Minister, promised to uphold women’s rights. He showed how much he meant it by being photographed with a large pink heart and the look of one who, having forgotten his partner’s birthday and wedding anniversary, hopes that a vulgarly large card with the reduced price sticker removed will allow him back into the marital bed. It is also because of some recent cases and what they tell us about the reality.
The first is the sentencing of – and revelations about – a prolific offender such as David Carrick, a Met policeman. Aged 48, in February he pleaded guilty to 48 offences of rape and sexual assault since 2003 and was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison. There were at least 5 earlier allegations – none of which were investigated, properly or at all – against him. The police are now investigating possible sexual offences he committed when he was 13. According to the judge’s sentencing remarks, he had a drunken abusive step-father, who was violent to his mother.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Sean Hogg, aged 21, was sentenced to 270 hours community service after being convicted for the rape in 2013 of a 13 year old girl, after threatening her several times. 2022 Scottish sentencing guidelines state that custodial sentences should not be imposed on those under the age of 25, unless there is no alternative. This is based on scientific evidence suggesting that a person’s cognitive abilities do not fully mature until then. This and the need for rehabilitation are factors a judge can take into account, though he could have imposed a custodial sentence in this case. The sentence, widely criticised for its lenience, may yet be appealed by the Crown.
What might we learn from these two (and other similar) cases?
- The attack in the Hogg case was in 2018; sentencing 5 years later. This is not unexceptional. It shows a criminal justice system not fit for purpose.
- Children and young boys exposed to domestic violence and an absence of exemplary father figures are at risk of learning that this is acceptable behaviour and, in their turn, inflicting the violence they witness and/or are subject to on others. Repellent as the behaviour of men like Carrick is, it does not come from nowhere.
- If crimes and bad behaviour are overlooked or excused, on the grounds of youth and immaturity, young men will learn that they can behave badly, appallingly even, and get away with it. The conviction rate for rape is low enough as it is. If the cost of it is hours litter-picking, why not do it? And having done it once, do it again. Repeatedly. The same applies to older men too, in professions and respectable jobs, when allegations are not investigated or treated as not serious or otherwise excused. Or when minor sexual offences (indecent exposure, say) are treated as little more than a joke.
- Of course, maturity takes time to develop. A 17 year old is not the same as a 26 year old. But brain maturity is not the only factor which matters. Morality matters too. Even the young can learn the difference between right and wrong long before they are fully mature. Indeed, learning to do so and accepting that actions have consequences is part of that process. Societal norms should surely reinforce that. The young should be taught how to become mature not that immaturity is a get out of jail free card.
- But if this is wrong and the under 25’s cannot be expected to understand that raping a child is wrong or bear the rigours of prison, why are we expecting them to vote, get a job, get married, become parents or even MPs? Does immaturity only matter when it comes to doing wrong?
- Rehabilitation matters but justice for the victim matters first. Rape is an appalling crime, for any woman, any man and especially for a child. A 13-year old is a child. Quite apart from the fear, violence and pain, there are the physical and mental consequences, often lasting years. There is the shame and guilt and the attack on one’s very sense of self, and all this done to someone very much less mature than the attacker. The effect on her seems scarcely to be considered, as if having given evidence and her age being listed as an aggravating factor, she can be forgotten about. Why would anyone bother reporting such crimes if this is the likely result?
- 98% of all sexual attacks are committed by men. The overwhelming majority of victims are female. It is a very stark sexual divide and how society deals with it reveals more than anything else the value society places on women.
Labour has a point when it attacks the Tory government’s record on criminal justice, though the problems did not start in 2010.
- Serially feeble Ministers in charge.
- Too many incompetent police forces.
- Inadequate forensic services.
- A large backlog of cases because of insufficient courts, judges, prosecutors and defence barristers and growing larger.
- Cases taking years – half a decade sometimes – to get to trial, a hideous burden on defendants, victims and witnesses.
- Insufficient prison places, which judges now have to take into account when sentencing.
- Inhumane prison conditions.
- A run down probation service without the resources to do its job.
- Little effective rehabilitation for prisoners and not much support for victims.
What there is instead – in excess – is lots of politicians talking loudly about wanting to do “something” about (“halving” even! ©Keir Starmer) violence against women and girls, now handily reduced to the “VAWG” acronym.
But unless Labour – or anyone else – clearly says it will spend the money – lots of it – to repair this dismal state of affairs (and how it will be raised), talk and an acronym is all women and girls can expect. No party anywhere in the UK has any interest in having an effective, timely system which catches criminals, brings them to justice and provides redress for the victims. At best they might pass more laws but without the resources to make them work.
The real problem with Labour’s attacks – or any Tory counter-attacks – is not their unfairness, incoherence or multiple inaccuracies about investigations, trials and sentencing. It is that they are no more than “Tough on Crime” window-dressing, as the interviews of Lucy Powell and Emily Thornberry show (where was Steve Reed, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister?).
Empty bluster. Put that on a poster and you have the entire next election campaign for all parties summed up.