Irish Penal Reform Trust

Scottish Sentencing Council: Public perceptions of sentencing for sexual offences

8th July 2021

The Scottish Sentencing Council has published in-depth research into public perceptions of sentencing for sexual offences. The research was conducted independently on the Council’s behalf by ScotCen Social Research. It examined in-depth public perceptions of sentencing of sexual offences in Scotland, including the perceptions of victims of sexual offences.

In total, 26 people took part. Four focus groups with members of the general public, five interviews with survivors of sexual offences, and one interview with a victim support worker were conducted. Discussion guides explored participant awareness of the circumstances covered by the offences, their knowledge and views of current sentencing offences, their knowledge and views of what factors are taken into account when sentencing and their perceived purpose of sentencing.

Key findings:

  • Overall, there was a lack of awareness of the offences set out in the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and what they involve. Child sexual offences, rape and the central role of consent were familiar to members of the public. Overall, however, members of the public did not have a clear understanding of how some sexual offences were defined, suggesting that there would be benefit to engaging with the public on the range and scope of sexual offences.
  • 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.
  • There were differing views on how courts should take account of harm. Some were of the view that because the impact can differ from one victim or survivor to another, all sexual offences had the potential to be equally harmful.
  • Overall, members of the public and survivors thought 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 gave a sentence in an exercise based on a real-world case, their decision was similar to that of the judge.
  • Sentencing was perceived as inconsistent by participants, who found it difficult to understand why sentences for similar cases could vary so significantly. Participants acknowledged the need to maintain flexibility and judicial discretion in sentencing to allow individual circumstances of the case to be taken into account. However, they believed greater transparency was required to help members of the public understand sentence decision-making, and that guidelines will provide consistency in this regard.
  • There was a general consensus that sentencing should address offending behaviour and that offenders should have access to support to aid rehabilitation. Some participants 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.
  • Both the public focus groups and survivors agreed that both the impact on the victim and their family should be considered as part of the sentencing decision.
  • 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.

The report is available on the Scottish Sentencing Council website here.

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