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Ensuring sentences reflect harm caused by crime

Posted on 12 December 2011
Tags: crime and justice, London riots, society, sentencing

Last week has seen some fascinating coverage around the August riots, based on publication of great work by the LSE and Guardian. At NatCen Social Research, we also conducted a study on the disorder for the Cabinet Office. I was fortunate enough to be involved with this research, interviewing a range of people in custody who were convicted for their role in the disorder. During the interviews, the nature and extent of sentencing for those involved was frequently raised.

There has been a debate in the media, stretching back to August this year about whether sentences were too harsh, or too lenient. Examples of people sentenced to significant periods of custody for handling stolen goods stoked the debate. The political motivation for sentences has also been the subject of intense discussion. Whether or not people agree with the sentences handed down to rioters, a key question in appraising them is whether the sentences are relative to the degree of harm caused. There can be absolutely no doubt that the riots in August caused real and lasting harm to individuals and communities across the country. But compared to offences targeting vulnerable members of our communities, is the extent of harm the same and a similar sentence warranted?

This issue has been on the forefront of my mind, since hearing about the sentence given to Stephen Skelton. Mr Skelton was sentenced to a suspended six month jail sentence for sexual assault against two boys in the mid 1980’s and 90’s. If we reflect on the harm caused by sexual assault that is very well documented in the academic and mainstream literature, can we say Mr Skelton’s offences are as harmful as handling some clothing or stealing water from a store?

I am not advocating life-sentences for all sexual offenders. That would not serve society in the longer-term as it would deny individuals the opportunity to rehabilitate via treatment, and then make a meaningful contribution to their communities on release. However, in a functioning society, justice does have to be seen to be proportionate. Perhaps then the issue of relative harm should be the guiding sentencing principle that is consistently applied. This may encourage people who have been the victim of serious violence to come forward and seek redress from the courts, and engage the public with sentencing guidelines.

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