Ken Clarke was right to start a debate about sentencing in rape cases
Jun 13, 2011
Justice for rape victims does not simply equate to long prison sentences. The Victims' Champion (pdf), Sara Payne, has urged us to reconsider our definition of justice, so it is "not just punishing a perpetrator and preventing further crimes". She suggested that an offender who pleaded guilty on the day of trial should not gain a discount, but that incentives for an early plea of guilt should be investigated. A 2009 academic study (pdf) on rape and the legal process also recommended looking at ways to encourage early admissions.
Further support for this approach can be found in the Stern Review (pdf) into how rape complaints are handled, which the government has said it endorses in full. Lady Stern found that securing a conviction and punishment is important for victims, but so is simply being believed. She advocated policies which "honour the experience" of rape, with victims feeling that their experience has been understood, its effects acknowledged and holistic support offered.
While some victims gain peace of mind from their attacker being behind bars for a lengthy period, decades of punitive sentencing regimes and higher and higher prison populations have not secured justice or safety for most victims of sexual violence. There is little evidence that deterrence works, or indeed that prison works. So what should we do?
....If we listen to victims, our assumptions about justice and victims' needs may be challenged. As well as sentencing reform, the government's consultation paper considers greater use of restorative justice, which requires the offender to acknowledge responsibility and take steps to make amends. Restorative justice has been used in a handful of adult rape cases in England, with some victims finding it valuable and recommending its wider use. It may have a role to play in meeting some of the needs and expectations of victims, by giving them a chance to tell their story in their own way and granting them a measure of control over the treatment of their complaint, such that some may gain a sense of justice.