Why does Rolf Harris make progressives turn into right-wing Tories?

Why does Rolf Harris make progressives turn into right-wing Tories?
by Ian Sinclair
2 October 2014

What is it about sex offenders that causes ostensively progressive and caring organisations and individuals to turn into right-wing Tories?

I ask because as soon as Rolf Harris’s sentence of five years and nine months in jail had been made public it was receiving criticism for being too lenient. “No sentence will give the victims back their innocence”, said David Peterson from the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service. “But if it were lengthened then society would be showing they are taking seriously the pain experienced by the victims.” The Guardian, supposedly the most radical voice in the mainstream press, noted the sentence was “if anything, lenient.” Meanwhile NIA and other women’s rights advocates retweeted the news that Harris’s sentence had been referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme.

A number of facts and arguments suggest this righteous anger is misplaced. First, as the Telegraph noted, it’s important to realise “because the crimes were historic, having been carried out between 1969 and 1986, Harris had to be sentenced according to the more lenient law that was in place at the time.” As a 2011 NSPCC report into the sentencing of sexual offences against children notes, contrary to the widespread belief that sentences are too lenient in actual fact “they have been getting longer in recent years, and the prison population has been increasing.”

Second, as the NSPCC study suggests, those who are pushing for harsher sentences need to deal with the fact we already have the largest prison population in British history. Giving the UK’s more than 40,000 convicted sex offenders even longer prison sentences would massively increase the UK’s prison population when we already imprison more people per head of population than any other nation in Western Europe except Spain.

Third, The Guardian is surely right to argue “the damage he [Harris] did to some of his victims has for them amounted to a life sentence”. So what punishment is appropriate, according to those who think the given sentence was too lenient? A life sentence? The death penalty? Should Harris be forced to subsist on bread and water? Of course, no sentence can equal the harm Harris has caused. So surely we should stop obsessing about the punishment and start focussing on dealing with the problem in the most humane and effective manner possible?

Fourth, though many argue a tough sentence will act as a deterrent to other potential offenders there is little evidence to support this. “A sentencing framework that is based on deterring future crime by imposing heavy sentences on convicted offenders does not work”, the NSPCC report clearly states. For the deterrence to be effective the NSPCC notes the offender must 1) be aware of the current sentencing levels 2) think about the sentencing levels when they are considering offending 3) believe they have a good chance of being caught 4) believe that if they are caught the heavier sentencing policy will be applied and 5) be prepared to refrain from committing the crime. On the latter point, considering sex offenders carry out the most taboo criminal act that exists in society knowing that discovery will lead to them becoming social outcasts, it seem highly unlikely heavier penalties will be effective in changing their behaviour.

Speaking about Harris’s sentence, the NSPCC noted “the main thing is that his victims feel that they can now move on with their lives and that he is never allowed to harm anyone else.” Of course, public safety is crucial but is prison the only way this can be achieved? 84-year old Harris may well die in prison but the vast majority of sex offenders are released into the community. Therefore, it’s imperative we find ways to minimise the chances of re-offending when sex offenders are released.

David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and a former prisoner governor, has long championed circles of support and accountability as a possible solution. This method involves dealing with sex offenders in the community by building a small group of close support (the circle) around the offender. “We are a ready-made family”, one Canadian circle member told Wilson in 2004. “If they abused again they would feel they were letting us down.” Wilson notes circles have “been shown to reduce the predicted rate of reoffending by more than 70%, compared to the UK Prison Services’s sex offender treatment programme, which, on average, produces reductions of just 10%-15%.”

So in terms of historical comparison and context, deterrence, public safety, effectiveness and the practicalities of a heaving prison population, calling for harsher sentences for sex offenders simply does not make sense. Rather than being influenced by emotive media-driven campaigns encouraging outrage about lenient sentencing we need to rationally consider and implement the most effective and humane solutions so we can reduce re-offending.

As that unlikely humanitarian Winston Churchill once said “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”

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