One of the bigger stories in the press on 5 October 2015 was the story of Jade Hatt, aged 21, and her conviction for sexual activity with a child, contrary to s.9 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
It appears that Hatt was babysitting an 11 year old child. The news reports state that she removed the child’s clothes, removed her own clothes and then sat astride him whereupon they had sexual intercourse. The prosecution described the incident as lasting for 45 seconds and that afterwards, Hatt had said that she had “enjoyed it”, but the child had said he had not as “it was wrong”.
The child’s father said: “I know he told her he was 15. He looks older than his years…He is sex mad. He would have been fully up for this experience and in many ways sees it as a notch on his belt and is totally unaffected by it.”
In a further twist to the tale, the child’s father had previously had a sexual relationship with Hatt.
As the victim of a sexual offence, the child automatically receives lifetime anonymity. That extends to naming his father as to do so would result in the child’s identity being more easily discoverable.
The judge imposed a suspended sentence – 6 months’ custody suspended for two years, with a supervision requirement. He also imposed a Sexual Harm Prevention Order prohibiting her from having unsupervised contact with male children under the age of 16 for a period of two years.
During the sentencing hearing, the judge said:
“Having read everything before me, it was quite clear he was a mature 11-year-old and you were an immature 20-year-old so that narrows the arithmetic age gap between you.
“I have read the comments of the boy’s father to the police where he doesn’t consider you a typical 20-year-old. I have also read what he has said about the effect on the victim.”
In some quarters of the press – and of course on Twitter – there was outrage at the “leniency” of the sentence.
Looking at the sentencing guidelines (see p.45), a strict application of the guideline would see this offence as placed within Category 1 A on the basis that there was penetration (albeit that it was the child who penetrated the defendant) and that there was an abuse of trust (in that the child’s father had trusted the defendant to care for his son). There is also arguably the “significant disparity in age” which adds to the seriousness. That would result in a starting point of around 5 years’ custody.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 s.125 enables a court to not apply the guideline where it would be in the interests of justice to do so. However, in this case, that was not required. The legislation requires a court to impose a sentence within the offence range – not the category range. The offence range is a community order to 10 years.
The sentence in this case is a custodial sentence, albeit that it is suspended. That is firmly within the offence range and therefore the question is simply is the sentence too lenient given the circumstances of the offence.
While this is no doubt a serious offence – particularly so because of the child’s young physical age and the abuse of trust element – one wonders what good would come of sending Hatt to custody. Taking the judge’s view that the child was mature and the defendant immature, their mental and developmental “ages” are far closer; would two 15 year olds who had sex be prosecuted? Unlikely, but if they were, would the press be calling for one of them to be sent to prison? Highly unlikely.
My personal view is that in cases such as this, the courts should think long and hard before imposing immediate custody. The judge has clearly taken the view that the SHPO is sufficient to protect young male children from her and that the cause of the offence can be explored through the community element to her sentence. Is it not overwhelmingly likely that the experience of being in court, facing an immediate custodial sentence (as she will no doubt have been advised) and being named in numerous national papers is an additional level punishment and likely to make her seriously consider her actions?
One of the aims of sentencing is of course punishment. Another is rehabilitation. With something in the order of 50 prisoners on whole life tariffs, 99% of prisoners will be released from prison at one point or another – the aim of the system has to be to rehabilitate and reduce offending. In this case, it would seem that the judge has taken a sensible approach, avoiding Hatt having an immediate custodial sentence on her record, losing her job (assuming she is employed) and saved the public a large chunk of cash.
We should be congratulating the judge on a sensible and brave decision, not criticising.