How sentencing guidelines recognise the impact of crime on victims
Victims are central to sentencing guidelines. When following the guidelines, the two things a court must consider first when deciding how serious a case is are: culpability, which means how much to blame the offender is, and harm.
Harm can include:
- the harm actually caused to victims;
- the harm intended to be caused; and
- the harm that was risked.
Here are some examples of each type of harm.
Harm caused might be physical harm to the victim such as a broken bone from an assault, or psychological harm such as the fear of going out alone after having been assaulted. For some offences harm is measured by a financial sum such as the amount stolen in a theft, but sentencing guidelines will also consider other harm to the victim such as the distress that can be caused if a pet is stolen. In many cases there may be several different ways in which a victim suffers harm, and the guidelines are designed to make sure that the courts take all of these into account.
Harm intended might be any of the types of harm described above and might be combined with actual harm. For example, someone might commit a fraud by tricking a victim into thinking they need expensive building work, but they are prevented by the bank from receiving the money. In such a case, the court’s assessment of harm would take into account the actual upset caused to the victim but it would also be based on the value of what the fraudster intended to trick the victim into paying.
Harm risked is particularly relevant to offences such as breaching a restraining order. A restraining order will be in place to protect named people and will usually contain conditions that the offender must not contact those people and must not go to certain places. An offender who breaches the order by going into an area where they should not be is risking causing harm to the people protected by the order. Even if nothing actually happens, the risk to the victim is used by the guideline to measure harm.
A full measure of harm
Our guidelines recognise that harm does not cease the minute an offence is over, and victims may suffer harm in ways that are wider than might at first be thought. Research conducted in the development of our guidelines for sentencing fraud, for example, found that victims reported a wide range of emotional and psychological impacts. These impacts included panic, anger, fear, stress, anxiety, self-blame and shame. Some victims reported feeling vulnerable, lonely, violated and depressed and, in the most extreme cases, suicidal.
Many guidelines allow for increased sentences where victims are particularly vulnerable. This may be because the victim is a child, is elderly or is disabled, or has previously been a victim. It will especially be the case when the offender has targeted the victim because of that vulnerability. Guidelines are careful to make sure that the actions of a vulnerable victim are not used to diminish the seriousness of the offence. So, if an offender befriends a vulnerable victim and is invited into their home, the court would see this as something that makes a subsequent offence more serious, not less serious.
So how does the court get the information it needs to assess these different types of harm and the effect on the victim?
A court will always have evidence of the offence and, depending on the type of offence, this may include eye-witness accounts, medical evidence, photographs and financial evidence. There will often be a statement from the victim about what happened and what harm they suffered. In addition to the evidence of the offence itself the victim may make a Victim Personal Statement (VPS), which can explain the effect that the offence has had on them. The prosecutor may read this to the court or the victim may have the opportunity to read it themselves. A VPS can be very important but if the victim hasn’t made one this will not mean that the court will think that they did not suffer harm.
Importantly, the court will always look at each victim as an individual and try to ensure that the harm that they have experienced is reflected in the sentence as far as possible. In some cases courts may consider that the best way to protect against future harm is not to impose a prison sentence but to impose a community sentence with requirements that will address the offender’s criminal behaviour. This might be combined with other orders to prevent re-offending. Such a sentence does not mean that the harm to the victim has not been recognised.
In other cases of serious offending, a court may conclude that the only way to protect the public from future harm from the offender is to impose a lengthy prison sentence.
There is more information for victims on this website, including what might happen if you go to court and what you can expect from the government’s Victims Charter.
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