Sex Offender Sentencing: The surprising results of my Masters study

Sentencing of sexual offenders has long been a controversial topic, with a generally accepted view that the sentences handed down by the courts for this particular cohort are too lenient. Sentencing is largely fixed under legislation, however there are certain variables, known as aggravating or mitigating factors which can have an effect on final sentences handed down. Governments publish sentencing guidelines which outline these factors in very broad terms, while empirical studies that have examined them and the actual effects they have on sentencing seek to more clearly define and operationalise these. Such sentencing guidelines dictate that offence severity and targeting of vulnerable populations should result in harsher sentences, whilst mitigating factors such as an offender being young, employed and appearing before the courts for the first time should result in more lenient sentencing.

For my Masters study, I conducted a content analysis to test these expectations, examining data from 60 sets of adult male sex offender sentencing comments. Frequency distributions and χ2 analyses were conducted to test the expectation that contact offending (deemed more severe than non-contact offending) and offences against children would result in more severe sentences, whilst offenders who were young, employed and had no criminal history would be more likely to receive lesser punishments.

Results produced some surprising findings. Offence characteristics were found to have no relationship to the severity of the sentences handed down in these cases. The severity of the offence, age of the victim and number of victims was found to have no impact on the sentence, which appears in direct contradiction to the sentencing guidelines under the legislation. The characteristics of the offender themselves; age, criminal history and employment, were all found to have a significant relationship to the severity of the sentence they received. This finding was in line with sentencing guidelines. From these results, it can be concluded that it appears the characteristics of the offender have a far greater impact on court sentencing than the offending itself.

So essentially what I found was that no matter how severe the offending, if the offender was young (operationalised for my study as being aged under 25 at the time of the offence), employed and had no criminal history, they would receive a far more lenient sentence than their older, unemployed counterparts who presented with a history of offending. Importantly, criminal history in my study included all offending types, not just sexual offending. It would appear from these results, that sentencing guidelines are only being loosely adhered to, with the focus being on the offender and not the offending. While this is likely to cause a highly emotive reaction from the general public, sentencing in this way is actually far more likely to reduce the chances that offenders will become recidivists. Sentencing guidelines are based on empirical data which has determined which factors are most closely linked to re-offending. And guess what? None of these have anything to do with the actual offence itself. Every single one is an offender characteristic. Therefore the results of my study indicate that offenders may not be being sentenced strictly according to the sentencing guidelines in terms of what they state about the offences themselves, but they are being sentenced with future rehabilitation and reducing the risk of further offending in mind. Public outcry aside, this is an encouraging trend.


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