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Public perceptions of sentencing of sexual offences in Scotland

Scales of justice
Published: July 2021

In 2019, the Scottish Sentencing Council commissioned ScotCen Social Research to undertake qualitative research to explore public perceptions of the sentencing of sexual offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of survivors of sexual offences.

Aims of the study

The aim of this research study was to explore public perceptions of the sentencing of sexual offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of survivors of sexual offences.

Findings

  • Members of the public had varying levels of awareness and understanding of sexual offences contained within the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009. Child sexual offences and rape were familiar to members of the public as well as the central role of consent. However, overall members of the public did not have a clear understanding of how some sexual offences were defined. The study suggests that there would be benefit in engaging with the public on the range and scope of sexual offences, particularly new offences introduced by the 2009 Act.
  • Participants agreed that all sexual offences had the potential to cause harm to victims. There were those who held the view that, because the impact of an offence could differ from one victim to another, all sexual offences could be equally harmful. However, others held the view that sexual offences that involved physical contact, such as rape and sexual assault, were more harmful than offences without physical contact, such as voyeurism and sexual exposure.
  • There were members of the public and survivors who thought prison should be a sentencing option for all types of sexual offences while others thought that a prison sentence should only be given for the most serious offences. Most participants considered that some offences, such as rape, did require a prison sentence. There was consensus among participants that any kind of sexual offence against minors or offences committed by repeat offenders should always receive a prison sentence.
  • Overall, members of the public and survivors perceived that sentencing for sexual offences was too lenient and did not reflect the harm caused, both to the victim and the family of the victim. For some, this was linked to media representations of the sentencing of sexual offences. However, when members of the public went through a scenario based on a real case, the sentence they proposed was similar to that passed by the judge. When told this, participants expressed surprise.
  • Sentencing was perceived as inconsistent and participants found it difficult to understand why sentences for similar cases could vary so greatly. Participants believed that greater transparency was required to help members of the public understand sentence decision-making. Participants thought sentencing guidelines could help achieve consistency in sentencing. However, the need for retaining judicial discretion and flexibility in sentencing was recognised to take into account the individual circumstances of the case.
  • Members of the public and survivors of sexual offences thought that certain factors should carry more weight in sentencing, namely: the seriousness of the offence, the harm caused and the impact on the victim. For members of the public, the risk of reoffending and the protection of the public were important factors to consider during sentencing.
  • A guilty plea was discussed as an important factor to be considered when introduced at the beginning of the criminal justice process: it was said to spare the victim the trauma of a trial. However, both members of the public and survivors viewed a last-minute guilty plea as a last resort for the accused and was not worthy of consideration. There was no consensus among participants as to whether the personal circumstances of the offender and remorse should be taken into account during sentencing.
  • Participants in both the public focus groups and interviews with survivors agreed that both the impact on the victim and their family should be considered as part of the sentencing decision.
  • Victim statements were mentioned as a way for the judge to become aware of the impact a crime had on a victim. Those who had produced a victim statement described the process as an emotionally challenging one but a worthwhile process as it gave them a chance to be heard. They also noted that the process of writing a victim statement lacked guidance, support and communication. There was also a view that the victim statement should be viewed as a ‘living’ document that needs to be updated at several stages to capture the full impact the offence has had.
  • Survivors of sexual offences felt that further supporting evidence, such as statements from medical professionals or others affected by the case, should be taken into consideration.
  • There was reluctance amongst members of the public and survivors to take the offenders’ personal and family circumstances into account as mitigation for their actions. Members of the public thought the impact a sentence would have on the offender should only be taken into account when the offender is deemed vulnerable, for example, in terms of their mental health or upbringing. However, when faced with a specific scenario members of the public became more interested in the personal circumstances of the offender so as to inform the sentence they would give.
  • Among members of the public there was a view that sentencing should address offending behaviour and offenders should have access to support to aid rehabilitation. There were participants who did not think sentencing for sexual offences was sufficiently aimed at rehabilitating offenders. Treatment options were suggested as a route to deter reoffending and to tackling offending behaviour.
  • Survivors requested greater support throughout the sentencing process in terms of: being provided with support to write victim statements and receiving adequate information regarding the sentencing process, the reasons behind decisions that were made and support available.

Methodology

To explore public perceptions of sentencing for sexual offences in Scotland, 26 people took part in a focus group or interview in March and April 2019. Twenty one people took part in four public focus groups in Edinburgh and Glasgow. They were aged between 17 to 71 years, 11 were male and 9 were female. Five survivors of sexual offences took part in an interview. Interviews with survivors of sexual offences were conducted in two groups of two and three, as was preferred by the survivors. All survivors were women. One interview with a victim support worker also took place.

Researchers

Susan Reid, Hannah Biggs, Kaushi Attygalle, Konstantina Vosnaki (ScotCen), Dr Rachel McPherson (University of Glasgow) and Professor Cyrus Tata (Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime & Justice, Law, School, University of Strathclyde)

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