Earlier this week, The Evening Standard ran a story that claimed ‘Burglars will face tougher jail sentences if children traumatised by the raids bravely tell courts of their ordeal.’
This was, it seems, a response to a statement made by Justice Minister Damian Green MP who the Standard reported, ‘stressed that judges should take into account personal victim statements made by youngsters, as well as adults, whose homes are burgled.’
What is he talking about?
That is the question I found myself asking, right before I emailed Dan to say ‘what a load of fucking nonsense’.
Just a few problems…
The article is somewhat confusing, seemingly failing to draw a distinction between children giving evidence at a burglary trial, and children making a Victim Impact Statement, and choosing to read that aloud at a sentencing hearing.
What’s the difference? Well at a trial, our fictional child may give evidence about the burglary (what he or she saw etc.), so that the jury or magistrates can determine whether or not our ‘burglar’ did it. At a sentencing hearing, our fictional child may choose to read his or her Victim Impact Statement aloud to the court (how the offence has affected them, are they scared to be in the house etc.).
So there is the first problem. The second problem is that the article (and Mr Green if the article is faithful to the points he was making) is making out as though this is a reform, and that the MoJ are making provisions for tougher sentences when children are affected by a burglary. The problem? That already happens.
The Burglary sentencing guidelines lists the following as aggravating factors:
[Aggravated burglary] Child at home (or returns home) when offence committed
[Domestic burglary] Occupier at home (or returns home) while offender present
Clearly, ‘occupier’ would encompass a child, and so when a child is at home during a burglary, that will be considered to be an aggravating factor and reflected in the final sentence.
The third problem is the suggestion that the Victims’ Code is somehow going to result in longer sentences for burglars. Firstly, there was already an inherent power to allow a victim to read a Victim Impact Statement aloud. The Code has simply formalised that power and is likely to have made it more common (but not by a great deal I don’t expect). Secondly, the idea that by reading your statement aloud, the defendant is going to get a longer sentence is simply wrong – it may put pressure on a person to read their statement when they do not wish to do so, and may encourage exaggerated or untrue statements. To suggest such a thing is irresponsible. Thirdly, it is common sense that whether read aloud or simply written and handed to the judge, the sentence will reflect the effect on the victim, as explained in the Victim Impact Statement – not by how well it is articulated orally in court.
So there we are. More nonsense from the Ministry of Justice, and a bit of dodgy press reporting to boot.