Child sexual abuse on trial. Part 2: The sentences (2016)

Judges in child sexual abuse cases do not sufficiently explain how they determine their sentences. Judges name a variety of factors in their grounds for sentencing, but do not specify the values assigned to these factors. ‘When a judge takes the young age of the victim into account, does that mean a longer sentence for the perpetrator? This is often not clear’, says Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children Corinne Dettmeijer. Not only should there be more clarity in the judge’s motivations in imposing a particular sentence in sexual abuse cases, but there should also be a framework for the sentencing; both perpetrator and victim should be able to understand why a certain sentence is imposed.

Yearly, judges impose punishment for more than 300 perpetrators for hands-on sexual abuse of a child. The term “hands-on sexual abuse” means there is physical contact between the perpetrator and the victim without any violence or force being used. Although the law provides for heavy maximum sentences ranging from six to twelve years’ imprisonment, the report Child Sexual Abuse on Trial shows that the average sentences imposed are far below the maximum sentences. In the sexual abuse cases, 43% of the adult perpetrators were not sent to prison, but instead were given an entirely conditional prison sentence or were sentenced to community service. Only one in five of all adult offenders who were convicted of indecency with a child served a year or more in prison.

Framework needed

Courts inconsistently took particular factors into account in determining a sentence and also treated identical factors differently, without any discernible pattern. Furthermore, in most judgments, the courts did not disclose the relative weight they attached to different factors. According to Ms. Dettmeijer, ‘Where one judge says the duration of the abuse leads to a higher sentence, another judge does not pay any attention to this.’ The judgments did not provide clear guidance for the reader, the offender, the victim and the public. ‘In order for these sentences to be predictable, the process behind imposing them must be transparent and understandable. This is why there should be a framework for sentencing in child sexual abuse cases.’

When does a child molester get a longer prison sentence?

The research also shows that four factors have a large significant influence on the length of the prison sentence. The judge imposes a longer sentence when at least one boy is abused, when a child younger than twelve is abused and when there is penetration with a genital organ during the abuse. The factor that contributes the most to the length of the prison sentence, is the demanded sentence by the Public Prosecutor. The longer the sentence demanded by the PPS, the longer the imposed sentence.

Earlier conviction does not matter

Remarkable is that some factors do not significantly influence the duration of the prison sentence. ‘When a perpetrator has previously been convicted for child sexual abuse, you would expect that they would receive a longer sentence, but this isn’t the case’, says the rapporteur. Another factor that also has no significant influence is when a child is entrusted to the offender’s care. Under these particular circumstances, statutory aggravating grounds can be applied. ‘This is the case with parents, or teachers, but on average the punishment is not more severe.’

About the research

The study was based on a sample taken from almost 600 judgments in 2012 and 2013 in which an offender was convicted of hands-on abuse of a child. The sample comprised 182 perpetrators. The charges in the cases were brought under the following articles of the Dutch Criminal Code:

  • Article 244 DCC (sexual penetration of a child under the age of twelve);
  • Article 245 DCC (sexual penetration of a child between the ages of twelve and sixteen);
  • Article 247 (indecent acts with a child under the age of 16)
  • Article 249(1) (indecent acts with a minor entrusted to the offender’s care).