Introduction and Facts
Adam Johnson, the former Sunderland and England footballer was sentenced on 24th March 2016 for three offences – one offence of sexual activity with a girl under 16 (contrary to s.9 Sexual Offences Act 2003) and one count of grooming (contrary to s.15 Sexual Offences Act 2003) to which he pleaded guilty to on 10th February 2016 at the start of his trial.
He was convicted on 2nd March of a further count of sexual activity with a girl under 16. This related to digital penetration of the girl’s vagina.
The maximum sentence for the two ‘sexual activity with a child’ offences is 14 years, with 10 years being the maximum for the grooming offence
The facts are well known – the 15 year old victim was a big fan of Sunderland, the football team that Ms Johnson played for. We are told that “They began swapping messages on New Year’s Eve and 18 days later Johnson met the girl to give her a signed Sunderland shirt.“
That is the essence of the grooming. After that, they met up on several occasions and, Mr Johnson knowing that she was 15, engaged in the sexual activity that he was convicted of.
On 24th March 2016, he was sentenced.
The prosecution said the guidelines suggested a starting point of 5 years. That suggests the sexual activity count involving sexual touching concerned penetration. It was said that Johnson used his “character and standing” to take advantage of the victim and that the victim had suffered serious psychological harm, representing “the most significant” aggravating factor. In a victim personal statement, the court was told that the victim was still being bullied at school, despite Johnson’s conviction. Additionally, the victim received thousands of malicious messages via social media including threats. Finally, it was said that “those close to Johnson” had encouraged supporters to repeated abuse the victim via social media.
A psychologist’s report stated that he has a compulsive desire for new sexual experiences and that he had “carelessly and recklessly disregarded” the victim’s age. The psychologist considered Johnson poses a low to medium risk of reoffending.
In mitigation, it was said on Johnson’s behalf that the victim was not selected because of her age and that he poses no risk to children. He told a psycho-sexual therapist that he is committed to undertake treatment to understand his sexual desires. Johnson told a psychiatrist that “explicit messaging is common among professional footballers” and that he wanted to let the people he has hurt get on with their lives. The psychologist gave oral evidence and stated that Johnson was “socially and psychologically immature”. He also said that in his opinion, Johnson did not have a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children and that he viewed the victim – aged 15 – as a woman not a child. Johnson told the psychologist that it didn’t occur to him that he was talking to a young child. It was also said that Johnson feels genuine remorse and hoped the victim’s family could move on from the incidents. He has been stripped of his England caps and “lost a lucrative career he will never be able to retrieve”, it was said. Finally, it was noted that Johnson had “lost everything” but that given his conduct, it was suggested that that might not be undeserved.
Mr Johnson was sentenced as follows :
There were three different ‘sex acts’ (seemingly standard journalist speak unfortunately) charged in three different allegations:
- kissing the girl – 4 months (concurrent)
- sexual touching – 5 years
- grooming – 12 months (consecutive)
The total sentence was 6 years’ imprisonment.
The judge commented that “She [the victim] had only just turned 15 when you began to groom her…because you found her sexually attractive even though you knew her to be just 15 […]” and that Johnson had sent the messages over a “prolonged period of time” to “test the waters”. He added that Johnson Googled ‘age of consent’ because he wanted to know when it would be legal “to engage in sexual intercourse” with the girl. Referencing Johnson’s attitude to women, the judge said “You called her just another girl, another opportunity, another one to get with”. Johnson’s efforts in deleting text messages in an attempt to cover his tracks was a significant aggravating factor, as is the “significant psychological harm” caused to the victim which would require ongoing therapeutic intervention, commenting that “Your standing and your offending are the only reason this child has suffered abuse.”
He noted that Johnson “had every opportunity” to enter guilty pleas but didn’t and as a consequence his victim “endured a year of abuse”. In relation to the grooming and sexual activity with a child (kissing) offences, the judge stated that Johnson was entitled to no more than 10% credit for his late guilty pleas.
Commenting that “All of this is entirely your own responsibility and fault” the judge took a starting point of 5 years and, having increased that to reflect the aggravating features, imposed a sentence of 6 years’ imprisonment.
Johnson was also ordered to pay £50,000 prosecution costs.
The sentencing remarks are available here.
A breakdown of the sentences
The approach of the Judge to the sentence was governed by the Sentencing Guidelines for Sexual Offences:
Sexual Activity with a child (digital penetration) (p45) –
This is far more serious. It is a Category 1 offence on the basis of penetration and a Culpability “A” offence on the basis of significant planning, grooming behaviour, abuse of trust, sexual images solicited and the significant disparity in age.
This gives a starting point of 5 years, with a range of 4-10 years.
The aggravating features included: location and timing of the offence (that being a dark and secluded place), severe psychological harm, steps taken to prevent the reporting of the offence (Johnson had repeatedly told the victim he could not tell anyone).
Sexual Activity with a child (kissing) (p45) –
This is a Category 3 offence. As to the Culpability, the judge placed it into Category ‘A’ on the basis of the factors identified above in relation to the digital penetration offence.
It is arguable whether a footballer should be considered to be a position of trust, but many would think so. Although there was definitely grooming, one has to be careful no to ‘double count’ with the separate count of grooming.
The starting point in the guidelines is 26 weeks. The judge took that starting point and gave a 10% reduction for the guilty plea. He imposed a concurrent sentence of 16 weeks (4 months)
Grooming (p63) –
As far as culpability, the judge consider the following factors were present: abuse of trust;
use of a gift; and communications indicating your desire for penetrative sexual activity. He considered that no factors indicating raised harm were present, and so this was a Category 2 offence. There were aggravating factors in the form of a disposal of evidence (the text messages) and again, steps taken to prevent the victim from reporting the incident.
He stated that although there was an element of grooming in the other offences, a separate offence and a consecutive sentence was appropriate to reflect the prolonged and both before and after the contact offences.
Taking a starting point of 2 years as suggested by the guideline, the judge reduced that to 15 months for the principle of totality. He then gave credit for the guilty plea (in the order of 3 months (20% not 10 as previously stated) and imposed a consecutive sentence of 12 months.
There are a number of consequences of this conviction.
The first is that the notification regime applies. This is more commonly known as the the Sex Offenders Register. Notification requires an offender who has been convicted of an offence listed in Schedule 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to comply with a variety of requirements. The period for which compliance is required depends on the length (and nature) of the sentence imposed. In this case, the sentence is more than 30 months and so Johnson will remain subject to notification requirements for the rest of his life. This will require him to tell the police certain details about himself, such as:
(a) his date of birth;
(b) his national insurance number;
(c) his name and, where he uses one or more other names, each of those names;
(d) his home address;
(e) the address of any other premises in the United Kingdom at which, at the time the notification is given, he regularly resides or stays.
(f) whether he has any passports and, in relation to each passport he has, the details of the information recorded.
This is not part of the sentence and therefore cannot be appealed. It is an automatic consequence of the conviction.
As Johnson has been sent to prison, the notification must take place within three days of his release. Additionally, if any of the details change (e.g. he moves house), he must notify the police within three days of that change. He must also notify the police if he goes abroad for a period of more than seven days, or if he resides elsewhere for a period more than seven days in one year. This applies to holidays as well as work trips – if Johnson returns to play football upon his release, and the team he joins plays abroad, this will apply.
A failure to comply is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment of up to five years.
Working with children
Additionally, this offence attracts what used to be known as a disqualification order, the purpose of which was to prevent certain offenders from working etc. with children and vulnerable adults. A couple of years ago, Parliament amended the legislation so that courts were no longer required to make an order – it is now automatic upon a conviction for a listed offence. The order is now known as “barring” – and operates in the same way, namely ‘barring’ people from working with children and vulnerable adults.
There are two lists, a) the adult list and b) the child list.
There are two types of barring following a conviction: a) automatic inclusion subject to representations and b) automatic inclusion not subject to representations.
In relation to the former, the offender has the right to make representations about the offence and their circumstances as to whether or not the barring authority (DBS) include them on the list. The ‘test’ is whether it is appropriate and proportionate to do so. It is unlikely that in this case representations would be successful. In relation to the latter, there is no right to make representations.
Johnson’s offences are listed. Both offences place him on the child list with a right to make representations.
This, again, is not part of the sentence and is an automatic consequence of the conviction.
Sexual harm prevention order
As Johnson’s offences are listed in Schedule 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the judge had the power to make a sexual harm prevention order. We have a fact sheet on SHPOs here, but in essence the court has the power to impose prohibitions on an individual fir the purpose of protecting the public (generally, or specific groups).
In this case, Johnson was/was not made subject to an order. The order must be “necessary” and “proportionate”. The minimum period is five years and breach of a prohibition is a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment of up to five years.
The judge did not make an SHPO, commenting: “Your tendency to sexual activity is not such as requires such an order for the protection of the public. The reports are as one that you pose a low risk of future harm. The sentence you must serve will doubtless contribute to deterring you from future offending and the significant notification requirements contain a sufficient protective element.”
Instead, the judge imposed a restraining order in relation to the victim. This appears to be have been at the request of the prosecution, although the terms have not been published.
Will there be an appeal?
Probably. We are told that there will be one against conviction (seemingly on the basis of inconsistent verdicts, which sounds pretty hopeless) and it would seem likely that Johnson would also seek permission to appeal against sentence. This does, however, seem to be well within the range of sentences expected for such offences.
6 years is clearly within the range of permissible sentences. While we might dispute the need (or legitimacy) of a consecutive sentence for the grooming – and there is certainly debate to be had over whether or not this constitutes double counting – it does not appear to be so high that the Court of Appeal would feel inclined to intervene.
We have a fact sheet on the process of appeals here.
Just a gentle reminder that it is a criminal offence to name the victim or publish photos of her …