People convicted of sexual offences in England and Wales were less likely to receive immediate jail sentences in 2020 than in any year since at least 2003 – even though so-called “custody rates” for other offences rose to record highs in the same period.
My analysis of Ministry of Justice data shows the custody rate for sexual offences – the percentage of people sentenced to immediate custody for a sexual offence – fell to 53.9 per cent in the year to September 2020, the most recent period for which data is available.
That was down from 57.5 percent in the year to September 2019, and 60.7 percent in the year to September 2018.
Instead, a higher proportion of offenders were given community sentences and suspended sentences.
It is the lowest rate since at least 2003, the earliest year for which data can be identified – in no other year since then has the custody rate for sexual offences fallen below 56 percent.
The figures will reinforce concerns that the criminal justice system is not taking a serious enough approach to sexual offences and violence against women – particularly given how few rape cases result in convictions. Figures reported in 2019 showed that only one in 65 rape cases led to a summons or charge.
Custody rates for all “indictable offences” – the most serious offences, which can only be tried in a crown court – rose to a new post-2003 high in 2020, suggesting the fall in custody rates for sexual offences is not an effect of Covid-19.
“Survivors deserve an answer as to why the current system is failing them, and a review into why custodial rates are at such a low is a vital part of this,” says Hannah Couchman, senior legal officer at the legal charity Rights of Women.
Although she identified a number of reasons why custodial rates may have decreased – for example, a shift to more rehabilitative sentencing, or changes in the type of offences that make it to court – she also suggested these figures could reflect a decline in the access to justice available for survivors across the criminal justice system.
“We regularly hear from survivors who are re-traumatised by their contact with the police and the justice system more widely – exposed to damaging rape myths and expectations around how survivors ‘should’ behave,” says Couchman.
“Ultimately, the misogyny survivors face when they report to the police is the same misogyny that has led to violence against women and girls being so widespread in our society – and it is concentrated in some of our most powerful institutions, including the justice system.
“Many women also face additional barriers when accessing the criminal justice system – migrant women aren’t offered safety from immigration enforcement when engaging with the police, and black and minoritised women have faced disproportionate over-policing, which has eroded trust.”
[See also: Are UK police forces institutionally misogynist?]
Ellie Reeves, Labour’s shadow solicitor general, says: “More than a decade of Conservative cuts to police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts is failing victims of sexual violence.
“The justice system is teetering on the brink of collapse, with delays in the crown courts at an all-time high.”
She said Labour would fast-track rape and serious sexual assault cases, offer free independent legal advice and representation for victims, and appoint a minister for survivors of rape and sexual violence.
A government spokesperson comments: “The most serious sex offenders are already spending longer behind bars and we are toughening sentences further.
“We are taking action to protect women from sexual violence – recruiting 20,000 police officers, providing an extra £40m in victim support and reviewing how the entire justice system responds to these horrific crimes.”
The government spokesperson added that custody rates for broad offence categories such as sexual offences can fluctuate without sentencing practices changing. For example, due to changes in the type of crime being committed, an increased number of lower-level offences being passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police, or the offending history of those being sentenced.
However, if the fall in custody rates is due to changes in the types of crime being prosecuted, that may indicate a failure to secure convictions for the most serious crimes.
Custody rates for sexual offences are still the second highest after robbery, which also fell markedly in the last two years. In contrast, custody rates for other offences, such as fraud, theft and indictable drug offences, have risen in recent years.
In addition, the raw number of total sentences and custodial sentences for sexual offences fell to post-2003 lows, although these figures have also been falling for other offences for a decade.
In the year to September 2020, 4,063 people were sentenced for sexual offences, of whom 2,191 were given immediate custodial sentences. The corresponding figures for the year to September 2016 were 7,353 and 4,365 – both have nearly halved since.
Among those who were given custodial sentences for sexual offences, the average sentence was 56.6 months in the year to September 2020 – down from 61 months in the year to September 2018, but still higher than in the 2000s and early 2010s. Average custodial sentences for rape have lengthened by more than two years over the last decade.
The figures are categorised according to the most serious offence for which each offender was dealt with.