Why are sentences so lenient?
Last week the former Labour MP Eric Joyce received an eight-month sentence, suspended for two years, and was ordered to complete 150 hours of unpaid work, for possessing a 51-second film depicting, in the words of the judge, Mr Justice Edis, “penetrative sexual abuse of a very young child”. At an earlier hearing, the film was said to “depict a number of children”, including one “only 12 months old”. The prosecuting barrister said that examination of Joyce’s devices showed that he had searched “for material for five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10-year-old girls”. Justice Edis, however, was inclined to be generous, telling Joyce: “You have sought help from people well able to provide it and there’s evidence before the court that that has had an effect on helping you reduce, perhaps completely, your impulsive behaviour, and that’s happened over a significant period due to the delay in these proceedings.”
Joyce has a remarkably lucky record of escaping prison. In 2010, he lost his licence for a year and was fined £400 after he admitted failing to provide a breath test. In 2012, he was fined £3,000 and given a 12-month community order after drunkenly assaulting four politicians in the House of Commons bar. Later that year he was fined £600 for removing his electronic tag. In 2013, he was fined £1,000 for verbally abusing staff at Edinburgh Airport and in 2014, he was given a suspended sentence for an “unprovoked” attack on two teenage boys. He is also alleged to have had an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year old researcher in the run-up to the 2010 election.
Responses on social media to Joyce’s light sentence show that many people believe he was treated leniently because of his status as a former MP – yet another example of the maxim that there’s one law for the elite, another for the rest of us.
If that’s a worrying thought, the truth is even more shocking: suspended sentences for viewing images of children being sexually abused are the norm, rather than the exception. Here are some examples from this year alone: in January, Robert Swanepoel was awarded a six-month suspended sentence for possessing 450,000 images of chid sexual abuse. in February, Dainis Bisofs received a 12-month suspended sentence after being found in possession of more than 3,000 images of child sex abuse. In March, Ethan Chapman, who was found to have 45,000 such images, received a nine-month suspended sentence. In July, Roger Spackman, who possessed 290,000 child abuse images, was given a 10-month suspended sentence. In all these cases, a large proportion of the images were Category A, which means they included depictions of children being raped.
In a country where you can receive seven years in prison for shoplifting, why are sentences for possession of child abuse images so lenient? The guidelines issued to magistrates state that the starting point for sentencing someone for possession of Category A images should be a year in prison. But the same guidelines list both aggravating factors that could increase the sentence and mitigating factors to reduce it. These are: no recent convictions; remorse on the part of the offender; previous good character; age (showing lack of maturity); mental disorder or learning disability; a demonstration of steps taken to address offending behaviour.
Judges seem only too eager to accept mitigating circumstances as a reason to issue a suspended sentence rather than an immediate jail term. Which offender, frankly, isn’t going to display remorse if it means avoiding prison? Similarly, which offender wouldn’t agree to take steps (as Joyce did) to address the behaviour? (Judge Emma Peters, who presided over Joyce’s original hearing, said that “he has now undergone work with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and a psychotherapist.”) Who wouldn’t use mental disorders as an excuse if they could? In Joyce’s case, his habitual drunkenness was treated as a mitigating factor, even though millions of us manage to get drunk every week without watching images of children being raped.
Some will argue that it’s possible to click on a link in a spam email and inadvertently download child abuse images. Recently police officer Robyn Novlett Williams was convicted of possessing a child abuse video that had been sent to her on WhatsApp – even though she never viewed it. In practice, it’s difficult to know how common this is: certainly in the cases mentioned above, the sheer quantity of images possessed means that it’s impossible to have stumbled on them by accident.
Part of the reason for the reluctance to send offenders to jail is the sheer scale of the problem: in the year to March 2019, 39 police forces recorded 17,521 obscene publications offences against children (publication includes taking and distributing images as well as possessing them). With our prisons already overflowing, you can see why judges might be eager to avoid issuing custodial sentences to thousands more offenders. Indeed, in 2017, Norfolk’s police chief constable said that paedophiles who viewed child abuse images shouldn’t even be prosecuted, because the police were already unable to cope with the volume of cases.
The depressing reality is that paedophilia is so widespread that the authorities can barely begin to tackle it. The Home Office’s Child Abuse Image Database recorded 2.1m unique images in the year to 2019, including 191,963 that involved penetrative sexual activity. Tens of thousands of children are being subjected to the most horrific sexual abuse, and that abuse is being filmed so that men like Joyce can derive sexual pleasure from it. Every image downloaded creates a demand for more.
Yet tackle it we must. Since the late 1980s, we have begun to understand how common child sexual abuse is – but we have been slow to tackle it. Organised grooming gangs operated in Rotherham for 30 years before the perpetrators were brought to justice. The Catholic Church, children’s homes and boarding schools all harboured abusers for decades, while those institutions collectively turned a blind eye. Jimmy Savile was able to abuse and rape hundreds of children over a period of at least 40 years because bosses at the BBC and Stoke Mandeville Hospital who knew it was happening did nothing.
Our continuing leniency towards those who harm children ought to be a national scandal, yet until high-profile cases such as Eric Joyce’s make the news, it largely goes ignored. Every time an offender evades prison, it allows demand to go unchecked – and the abuse of children to continue. Until we tackle the problem head-on, our claims to care about child sex abuse will be no more than fine words.
Photo credit: Eric Joyce arrest mugshot