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Friday, July 11, 2014

Victim's Code - Is it enough, or is it toothless?

The announcement this week that the Victim’s CommissionerBaroness Newlove will be conducting reviews to find out if the Criminal JusticeSystem is adhering to the Victims Code is to be welcomed!  Let’s face it, anything that improves an individual’s experience of navigating the daunting criminal justice system after having a crime inflicted on them is to be applauded. 
The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, otherwise known as the ‘Victim’s Code’ was first introduced in 2006 with a purpose of setting out the services which were to be provided to victims of crimes by criminal justice agencies in England and Wales.  The ‘Code’ was reformed in 2013 and includes entitlements, such as, allowing the victim to read a statement out loud in court, or to have someone else read it for them.  To read a list of ‘entitlements’ in the Victims Code click HERE  

The confusion arises when you find out that the ‘Victims Personal Statement Scheme’ has been in place since 2001; not exactly a new entitlement. And even though being able to read your statement out in court is cited as an entitlement, the court judge can still refuse to allow it. So what are the new ‘entitlements’ in the ‘Victim’s Code’?  There isn’t any. Most entitlements are already being given to victims of crime or should be given.  This gives rise to the question of whether this is just a way of the government acting like it is doing something to help victims, when really it does nothing that isn’t already being done.

There is also the question of whether the ‘Victims Code’ is enough, and what are the consequences for criminal justice agencies for not following it?  Well to try and put it simply; although the ‘Code’ comes under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, if a victim of crime has not received the relevant service, they would have to complain to the relevant service provider and if that doesn’t achieve anything the victim can then take their complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman via their MP. 
So the upshot is there are no real consequences for criminal justice agencies for not following it, and half the time when there are complaints of criminal justice agencies not adhering to the ‘Code’ most agencies point the blame at each other.  Meanwhile, victims suffer whilst agencies play the blame game!

The wider question to be asked is: is the reform of the ‘Victims Code’ going far enough to ensure that victims are put first, and that the system is more responsive and easier to navigate?  Well, it is quite telling that the former head of public prosecutions Kier Starmer, who is now a member of the Labour founded Victim’s Taskforce, has been quoted as saying that:

“From a victim’s point of view, our justice system is hardly fit for purpose”

         (TheGuardian, 2014)
He goes on to say that:

“No doubt individual failings by police and prosecutors provide part of the explanation.  But to suggest these shortcomings are the core problem is complacent, and overlooks the real improvements that have taken place in recent years.  A more radical review of our criminal justice arrangements is long overdue”

                                                                                                                                             (TheGuardian, 2014)

“These measures (Victims Code) are ‘bolt-ons’ to the existing arrangements.  What is needed is a fundamental rethink, leading to a specific and legally enforceable Victim’s Law alongside a real and radical shift in attitude and approach”

Although Starmer does not specifically detail what he means by a ‘Victim’s law’ I agree with elements of his views, such as, that there needs to be a radical shift in attitude and approach.  Why he didn’t do anything about it whilst in his previous role is beyond me!  But maybe a move away from an adversarial system to an inquisitorial system could be the answer?  Who knows, but it is worth investigating. 

One thing about the ‘Code’ which baffles me and highlights the need for radical reform is the point at which it states that “victims of crime should be treated in a respectful, sensitive and professional manner without discrimination of any kind. They should receive appropriate support to help them, as far as possible, to cope and recover and be protected from re-victimisation”. 

This point baffles me due to the fact that it does not seem to apply to defence barristers who are sometimes responsible for re-victimising victims of serious sexual offences amongst other crimes.  There are many women who speak of being ‘raped all over again ‘and traumatised by defence barristers’ up and down the country.  It seems that the ‘Code’ will look after you until you cross the threshold into the courtroom and your time comes to stand in front of a defence barrister, when you are made to go through every minute detail of the crime in front of total strangers and have your character, integrity and life ripped to shreds and dragged through the mud.  Legal professionals, such as defence barristers, have been the culprits a lot of the time; they have been the authors of a lot of problems over the years with the way that victims have been treated. 
So why then are defence barristers allowed to behave like this? Something needs to change! 

Additionally, why do rape victims feel like they are on trial and have limited (5 minutes before going into the courtroom) time with the CPS prosecutor?  Actually come to think of it, why do rape victims not have anybody fighting their corner in the courtroom? The CPS prosecutor works for the crown and the defence barrister works for the defendant (the defendant is able to have unlimited time with his barrister/solicitor).  This is surely not fair!

Here are a few cases where the treatment of rape victims by defence barristers could have been better.

 After highlighting the issues with defence barristers, it is interesting to highlight the fact that there has been much emphasis on how the police respond to rape victims, and how this could potentially have an impact on the low reporting rates for rape.  When in actual fact it is more likely to be that individuals who have been raped know what they have to go through in a courtroom which could actually be what is putting rape victims off reporting these crimes. 
In the academic field of Criminology the idea of improving victim’s experiences and ‘rebalancing’ the Criminal Justice System to recognise the needs of the victim is not a new concept.  It has been around since the 1940’s and comes in the form of what is called ‘Victimology’. 
Academics argue that the increasing concern with rebalancing victims ‘rights’ can be dangerous as it tends to suggest that defendants have more rights than victims, and that to improve victim’s rights would have to make rights for defendants worse.  And it goes on to state that changing the system to allow victims more rights could change the fundamental principles of criminal justice; if that happens they say victims would gain nothing.
Academics argue that criminal justice should not be thought of as a balancing act between defendant and victim.  The focus should be on the general principles that underpin the system of criminal justice.  Put simply, the rights of victims should be abandoned and replaced with a concept that focuses on the right for everybody to be treated in a fair manner.
It is fair to say that victim’s right have come a long way from the 1940’s.  However there is still a fair way to go, and no doubt this debate will continue to rage on until the government take proper action to improve the rights of victims, specifically victims of serious sexual abuse.

J. Taylor

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rolf Harris and the Celebrity Justice System

The CJS: Criminal Celebrity Justice System.

 It has probably not escaped most people’s attention that there is a debate raging on about whether or not the sentence handed down to Rolf Harris is appropriate. Some are of the opinion that the sentence is not long enough, or too lenient in proportion to the offences he was convicted of. Some believe that as a man of 84, there is little benefit to putting him in jail, and some going so far as to believe that a man of this age is incapable of being a further danger to women (whether or not the offending stopped in later life this view genuinely frightens me). In my own opinion, I have several problems with the sentences passed down on Rolf Harris last week.

 Firstly, in the sentencing comments by Mr Justice Sweeney he spoke of considering that Mr Harris be enabled to spend his 'twilight years' with his family. My major contention with this issue is the length of time that his abusing went undetected, unreported, and I suppose more to the point unpunished. Whilst it may seem pointless to some; sending a man who probably won't live to fulfil his full sentence to prison, I would ask those people to consider the effect that the abuse has had on the victim(s), the knowledge and anguish they have held for lengthy periods of time knowing that their abuser has been afforded the freedom to live peacefully in a way that was taken from them. I would also suggest that this be reason to not consider his age a mitigating factor, he has, for decades been able to spend time with his family, I seriously wonder why this luxury should be granted to him now just because he has been discovered so late in his life.

 My second issue is with whether his celebrity status was a factor in a lower sentence length, as his other 'contributions to society through entertainment and charity work' also seem to have been considered. Teachers and care home workers are all in the position to make great contributions, but when these positions are manipulated to enable sexual offending, it is considered to be a gross breach of trust, and therefore, I have to wonder the extent to which their contributions are considered mitigating factors. If a teacher whom abused several children was also supporting many others towards achieving good grades etc, would this be considered a worthy enough contribution to society to warrant a lowered sentence in the same way that the charity work of a popular entertainer may be? Somehow the scales feel tipped, though on research, sentence lengths for so called non-celebrity historic abuse cases still seem lenient in my eyes anyway; the reason behind this brings me on to my third point:

 Concurrent sentences. Under guidelines for concurrent sentencing, when several charges are pursued, if a person were to be sentenced consecutively this may result in an overall sentence length considered disproportionate to the crimes committed, and therefore concurrent sentencing is used to consider the offences as a whole. While I see some sense to this, in this case along with those of Stuart Hall and Max Clifford I feel it has been grossly miscalculated to the benefit of the convicted party.  According to the sentencing council guidelines, when multiple sentences are to be served concurrently, it may be that some are increased in length through the consideration of aggravating factors to reflect the overall criminality and the amount of harm caused to the victims.  With this in mind, receiving 12-15 month sentences for offences which even under the 1956 act carry a maximum sentence of 2 years, does not reflect the purpose set out in these guidelines. 

I understand the sensibility behind concurrent sentencing, however, with this case it seems that whilst the mitigating circumstances have been taken into account, there is a distinct lack of consideration for the aggravating factors that should have been applied to the sentences of the six sexual offences to be served concurrently.  As I’ve previously said, each of these carry at lowest, a maximum sentence of 2 years (and for the most recent charges, up to 10 years). It is astounding that it appears the psychological effect on his victims has been disregarded with the knowledge Rolf Harris is likely to serve just half of his sentence in prison.

J. Ison
B.A. (Hons) Crime & Investigative Studies

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"The 'innocent years', not so innocent anymore..."

I’ll be honest when I say that the recent charges brought against Rolf Harris have ruined a giant chunk of what are often considered our ‘innocent years’ for me. He was made famous for his likeable TV personality, his remarkable ability as a painter, his funny and original performances, but now etched on the brains of thousands he is nothing but a molester. Believe me when I tell you, I used to rush in from playing outside to watch Animal Hospital every week; it was a firm favourite in my household. But like so many other entertainers, Rolf Harris has fallen short and it has been revealed that he abused that adoration and trust of so many young girls, no different to myself, and exploited them for his own sexual gratification. Perhaps the most surprising of all the recent sexual abuse revelations was Rolf himself; this coupled with his firm denial of all charges and constant support from his wife and daughter, made it that more bitter to find out he was guilty of all charges.

Down to the nitty gritty so to speak, Harris was charged with five years and nine months. In reality, he will only likely serve half his sentence, due to an overwhelming number of mitigating circumstances. Four of his victims were young children, he used his fame in order to take advantage of their trust, and perhaps most chilling of all was his repeated abuse of daughter Bindi’s best friend.

This whole saga throws hundreds of questions into the mix, not just about Rolf Harris, but about all those famous who have been thrown back into the spotlight for exploiting their celebrity status for their own seedy needs. What was it that compelled them to carry out these acts, some of which were so blatant, and more often than not live on TV? In a number of these cases, it appears that this was just commonplace, and people expected it of many of those charged. I’ve read many articles in which a number of people stated that to be chosen by these men was in fact an honour; it meant you were one of the pretty girls, that you were in fact lucky. That whole concept absolutely horrifies me. Was it merely because ‘everyone was doing it’, so Rolf Harris deemed it acceptable or is there a much darker, more sinister side to him? For many, the constant denial is a total lack of remorse, so maybe really he is the worst of all the entertainers.

I think what is most disturbing about all these cases, is the fact that many are not surprised by these outcomes; it’s almost as if we have accepted that the 70’s was the decade of the perve. Which leads me to wonder, when I enter my 40’s and 50’s will I begin to see stories emerge of the great entertainers of my teens having copped a feel of young girls? Or maybe the limitless media attention out there these days is too much of a risk, coupled with the overwhelming number of laws put in place in order to combat these horrific life-ruining crimes which seem so very present in our news every week. What is clear to see is that even those most respected of TV personalities are capable of the most unimaginable crimes, and that the ‘innocent years’ are over from more than one perspective.

 B.A. (Hons) Criminology

To read a previous post about Rolf Harris and the sentencing decisions, click on the link to the right, or click here

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sexual Offender who has been sentenced for 12 counts of abuse and victimized at least 4 young girls will spend less than 3 years in Prison: Rolf Harris

By A. Neaverson

If you were to read the headline without the celebrity name attached, you would be absolutely appalled by the seemingly lenient sentence. However, in today’s society we have become more accepting of responses such as ‘Yeah, that’s what I expected because he is so famous’. Since when did we fall back into the pre-classical approaches to criminal justice and have one set of laws for the rich and another for the poor?

Rolf Harris has been sentenced to 5 years and 9 months in prison, meaning he is likely to spend less than 3 years physically behind bars. Furthermore, he will not be ordered to pay compensation to his victims. According to the BBC, Rolf showed no emotion while his sentence was being read out; maybe he didn’t know if he should cry or smile.

As described within the Sentencing Remarks of Mr Justice Sweeney found here, Rolf Harris was sentenced for 12 counts of indecent assault on 4 victims who were aged between 8 and 19 at the time. He received the following sentences for each count:

Count 1: 9 months’ imprisonment.

Count 2: 6 months’ imprisonment consecutive.

Count 3: 15 months’ imprisonment consecutive

Count 4: 15 months’ imprisonment concurrent

Count 5: 15 months’ imprisonment concurrent

Count 6: 12 months imprisonment concurrent

Count 7: 15 months’ imprisonment consecutive

Count 8: 12 months’ imprisonment concurrent

Count 9: 12 months’ imprisonment consecutive

Count 10: 9 months’ imprisonment concurrent

Count 11: 9 months imprisonment concurrent.

Count 12: 12 months’ imprisonment consecutive.
 Some people are asking But what did he do?”, “Didn’t he just grope a few girls? Back in the day that wasn’t uncommon. Well let me help you to get a better picture of what Rolf Harris did to innocent children.
You indecently assaulted ‘A’ in 1969 (when she was aged 8 and you were aged 39). You did so when you made an appearance at the Leigh Park Community Centre in Havant, and she approached you for your autograph. Others were present. Taking advantage of your celebrity status, you twice put your hand up her skirt between her legs and touched her vagina over her clothing.
Victim 'C' - Age 13, took her on holiday and indecently assaulted her; and again when she was 15. You left your wife and ‘C’’s parents downstairs and you went up to ‘C’’s bedroom on the top floor of the house....."
Ill stop there, but if you want to know "what did he do" the judge summarises it here.

So why did he only get less than 6 years... or 6 months per offence? Because of his Mitigating Factors (which are factors that work in favour of the defendant and can result in a lesser sentence). According to the sentencing remarks, the judge considered the following mitigating factors as part of his sentencing decision:
“On your behalf I am asked to take into account a number of matters in mitigation, including the following:

(1) With the exception of ‘C’ the offences were brief and opportunistic. 

(2) The fact that you have no previous convictions and have led an upright life since 1994 ‐albeit it is accepted that that must be tempered by the reality, underlined in the Attorney General’s Reference (above), that you got away with your offending for years. 

(3) The fact that you have a good side, that there are many people who know you who speak well of you, and that over many years you have dedicated yourself to a number of charitable causes.

(4) The fact that you are not in the best of health, as attested to in the report of Dr Fertleman, and that therefore, although capable of serving a prison sentence, it will be particularly tough on you. 

(5) The fact that your wife, who you help in looking after, has various health problems, as attested to in the report of Dr Mitchell‐Fox. 

(6) That you should be enabled to spend your twilight years with your family.”

I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me. The mitigating factor that I think we especially need to reconsider is the last one, “That you should be enabled to spend your twilight years with your family”. What about the young women’s right to spend their childhood without having it ruined by a sexual predator. Forget about their childhood; the events that took place have ruined their adolescents and impacted their adult years as well, not to mention the outcome that this trial will now have on them. They have been suffering for over 30 years, yet the judge says that Rolf Harris should be enabled to spend his last few years within the safe comfort of his family. It appears that the Mitigating factors are being put before the negative outcomes that his victims have been dealing with for their entire lives.  

Rolf Harris was sentenced based on ‘sentencing historic sexual offences set out in Annex B of the current Sentencing Council Definitive Guideline” which means that the “maximum sentence on Count 1 is one of 5 years imprisonment, on each counts 2-9 it is one of 2 years imprisonment, and on each of counts 10-12 it is one of 10 years”. Today, these offences attract significantly higher maximum sentences, but regardless, as stated “on each of Counts 10-12 it is one of 10 years” for a maximum sentence meaning he could have received more time in prison.

Perhaps this is why, according to the BBC “the sentence of five years and nine months has already been referred to the Attorney General's Office under the ‘unduly lenient sentence scheme’". To read more about the unduly lenient sentence, click here

It would be interesting to look at a comparison of this ‘celebrity status’ with a normal ‘citizen status’ case to see if the types of sentences are similar, or if they have been impacted by his celebrity status.