Why do some sex offenders get jailed when others walk from court?

Criticism is frequently levelled at judges – but more often than not they are following official guidelines.

Why do sentences for sex offenders differ?

There are a number of different factors that judges have to weigh up when considering what sentences to give a criminal in front of them in the dock.

The most important – obviously – is what crime they’ve committed.

Sexual offences range widely – as do the punishments.

Most of the different sex crimes are set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. People accused of historic sex offences will be prosecuted under the laws that existed when they carried out their perverted crimes.

The Sexual Offences Act includes the most heinous sex crimes, such as rape and sexual assault of a child under 13 by penetration, which carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The Act also covers crimes like soliciting, which can only be punished with a fine, and indecent exposure, which carries a maximum punishment of two years behind bars.

Other laws cover crimes like possession of indecent images of children and so-called 'revenge porn'.

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Oxford Crown Court Picture: Ed Nix

Judges have to consider the sentencing guidelines

Many sexual offences have sentencing guidelines. Developed by the Sentencing Council, these give judges a guide as to the kind of punishments they should mete out for different crimes.

There are two main things for judges to consider: the harm someone’s offending has done to their victims and society and the defendant's culpability - otherwise known as their blameworthiness.

READ MORE: Judge tells sex offender he'd be 'perfectly justified' in jailing him

There might be aggravating features of the crime that mean they deserve a harsher sentence, for example if the victim has suffered severe psychological harm or if the defendant has previous convictions for similar crimes.

But there are also mitigating factors, for example that the defendant has a learning disability that affects their blameworthiness. Judges must bear in mind the age of a defendant when they committed their crimes.

The sentencing guidelines may push the judge towards imposing a lengthy term in prison – or they might direct the judge to give the defendant a community order.

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Judge Ian Pringle QC, the Recorder of Oxford 


In the Sentencing Council’s sexual offences guidelines, judges are told that a lengthy community order with a sex offender treatment programme can be an alternative to a short prison sentence 'where there is a sufficient prospect of rehabilitation'.

Part of the challenge facing judges is that rehabilitation programmes for sex offenders take so long that there isn’t time for them to complete the courses in prison – particularly if the sentencing rules only allow for a short jail sentence.

READ MORE: 12 years inside for child sex offender

By contrast, a three year community order gives enough time to complete the sex offender treatment programmes.

Judges might feel that the risk posed by a convicted paedophile can be adequately managed by a Sexual Harm Prevention Order, typically imposed on a defendant for 10 years and designed to restrict their access to children online and in the real world. Breaching a Sexual Harm Prevention Order or Sexual Risk Order carries a five year prison sentence.

Almost all of those convicted of sexual offences are required to sign on to the sex offender register, requiring them to notify police of where they are living.

The worst offenders do get punished

Despite what some think, the most serious offenders do get sent to prison. 

On Monday, Judge Michael Gledhill QC jailed Carterton man Anthony Pitts for 12 years. He'd been convicted by a jury earlier this year of abusing two young children while he was in his teens and early 20s.

The judge noted that Pitts had learning difficulties and had the emotional capacity of a 14-year-old. But he added: "I again point out the obvious; that 14-year-olds do not go around sexually abusing [victims].”

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Anthony Pitts' custody shot Picture: TVP

The same judge, Michael Gledhill QC, bemoaned that he was unable to send another 'sex pest' to prison - despite saying he would be 'perfectly justified' in doing so.

He told Maxwell Da Silva Miranda, who was convicted of touching a girl in Oxford, that he had to follow the sentencing guidelines. 

“The circumstances of this offence are not sufficient for me to send you to prison," Judge Gledhill said.