Child sexual abuse sentences too often

When delivering judgment in sexual abuse cases, the courts are often insufficiently transparent about how they have decided on the sentence imposed. The courts address all sorts of grounds for the sentence but often do not state how these grounds give rise to the final sentence imposed. 'Does the court referring to the tender age of the victim mean that the perpetrator is given a longer sentence, for instance? Such issues often remain unclear,' National Rapporteur Corinne Dettmeijer states. In addition to more transparency in the grounds presented for a sentence, an increased uniformity of sentences is desirable. Both victims and perpetrators should be able to understand why a certain sentence is imposed. Ms Dettmeijer therefore in her 'Child Sexual Abuse on Trial' report argues for the establishment of a national sentencing framework for child sexual abuse cases.

The courts annually sentence well over three hundred persons for committing hands-on child sexual abuse, i.e., sexual offences involving physical contact between the perpetrator and the victim without applying violence or coercion.  The maximum punishment for child sexual abuse is six to twelve years' imprisonment. The investigation report by National Rapporteur Corinne Dettmeijer, published today, shows that these maximum sentences are hardly ever imposed in practice. Almost half (43%) of all adult perpetrators are not given a custodial sentence, but a suspended custodial sentence or community punishment only. One in five adult perpetrators are sentenced to a term of imprisonment of a year or more.

National framework required

No pattern is discernible in the grounds for the sentence presented by the courts. Nor does it in most cases become clear how much import is given to these grounds or whether certain grounds result in a heavier or, adversely, lighter sentence.  Says Ms Dettmeijer: 'While the court in the one case judges that the abuse having been committed over a long period of time forces it to impose a heftier punishment, the issue remains wholly unaddressed in other cases.' This results in there being little certainty for the perpetrator, the victim and society at large. It is important for the sentences imposed to be transparent and understandable and, thus, more predictable.  'This requires the establishment of a national sentencing framework for sexual abuse cases.'

When are longer custodial sentences imposed?

The investigation report also shows that four factors are of high statistical relevance to the length of the custodial sentence imposed. The courts impose longer sentences when the Public Prosecution Service demands a longer sentence, when at least one abuse victim is under twelve years of age, when at least one the victims is male and when the abuse involves sexual penetration.

Previous convictions play no part

Strikingly, some factors unexpectedly play no part in the severity of the sentence imposed. 'One would expect that a perpetrator having been previously convicted of a sexual offence would result in the imposition of a longer custodial sentence. This is not the case, however,' the National Rapporteur states. Other factors, too, appear to play no part in the length of the sentence. The legislative has determined that some circumstances may result in the imposition of very high sentences. This applies, for instance, to the sexual abuse of a child entrusted to the perpetrator, as is the case when the offence is committed by a parent or teacher. 'Yet we find that these perpetrators are not, on average, punished more harshly.'

About the investigation

The investigation was carried out by studying a sample of all 2012 and 2013 judgments sentencing a perpetrator for committing physical sexual abuse of children. The sample was composed of 182 sentences. The sentences related to violations of the following sections of the Dutch Criminal Code:

Section 244 (sexual penetration of a child aged below 12),

Section 245 (sexual penetration of a child aged between 12 and 16),

Section 247 (sexual abuse of a child aged below 16),

Section 249(1) (sexual abuse of a child entrusted to one's care).

This investigation in February 2016 resulted in the publication of the report 'Child Sexual Abuse on Trial. Part 1: The Cases'. This report detailed the nature of the sexual abuse cases investigated.

About the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children

Ms Corrine Dettmeijer, the National Rapporteur, reports to the government on the nature and extent of human trafficking and sexual violence against children in the Netherlands. The National Rapporteur monitors the effects of the government policies pursued in this connection and issues recommendations aimed at improving the fight against human trafficking and sexual violence against children.