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Oxford University Press - Online Resource Centres

Hale et al: Criminology 3e

Chapter 10: Chapter synopses

Sexual offending is often seen as somehow 'different' to other forms of offending ? even other prisoners in custodial settings shun the sex offender. Sexual crimes and their management have moved up the political agenda over the last decade. Punishments have increased and a range of other measures been put into place to try and 'regulate' the sex offender in the community.

Sexual offending invariably takes place in 'private' in much the same way as consensual sexual activities. As such it is often difficult to bring it into the public arena of investigation, prosecution etc and is often a matter of one person?s word against another.

Sexual offending also usually presumes an absence of 'consent' by one of the parties; the sexual activity is coercive and imposed or one of the parties lacks the capacity to make a valid consent. Children invariably lack this capacity to consent and we talk of an 'age of consent'. People with mental health problems or learning difficulties similarly lack the capacity to make a valid consent.

The investigation of sexual crime is hampered by it's often 'private' nature; the challenge is to make that which is 'private' into a 'public' matter. The police have improved their interviewing techniques and forensic medical testing over the last twenty years.

Prosecuting agencies face the same challenges as the police to produce substantive evidence to place before a judicial hearing. In the past they have been accused of too easily 'giving up' (known as 'discontinuance') and contributing to the so-called 'attrition rate' whereby cases fail to get to court; attempts are continually made to improve the success rate of presenting cases in court.

Victims of sexual crime have not always had the best of court hearings. Remedies to improve the position of victims as court witnesses include the use of video links, pre-recorded testimony and other 'special measures' to assist the intimidated witness. Limitations have also been placed on the extent to which a woman's past sexual history can be brought into court as evidence; in the past it has been used to discredit and 'smear' women as credible witnesses.

Since 1991 the punishments available to courts for sexual offenders have steadily increased in severity ? longer custodial sentences ? extended supervision in the community ? automatic life imprisonment for repeat offenders ? 'imprisonment for public protection' for those considered dangerous. At the same time offenders have been offered sex offender treatment programmes in prison ? and in the community ? to try and contain their offending.

There has been much debate about opening up the sex offender register for public inspection so that communities ? and not just the professionals - might know the whereabouts of sex offenders living amongst them. This is done in the USA where it is known as 'community notification' or 'Megan's Law'. At present the UK government has not been persuaded that this is something they wish to introduce here.