Saturday, March 26, 2011

The words say 'serious offence', the punishment tells a different story

The BBC reports on the punishment for a woman found to have made a false complaint of sexual assault -

A woman who admitted wasting police time by making false allegations of sexual assault in South Yorkshire has been fined £80.

The 41-year-old claimed to have been attacked by two men on land off Greenland Road in Darnall in January and two arrests were made.

Police said their investigation found inconsistencies in her account and the woman later admitted making it up.

News of the allegation spread fear and panic in the local area, police said...

"Her false report tied up a good deal of police time that could have been spent on other matters, and unfortunately, cases like this can only have an adverse effect on efforts to tackle genuine reports of rape."

I'm not exactly part of the hang 'em, flog 'em tendency, so I'm not going to say this relatively light punishment was wrong in its own terms, but I do wonder about the tone of the police comments. Taking a deliberate action that could have utterly wrecked the lives of two innocent people is (or at least certainly ought to be regarded as) a very serious offence, so if something as minor as a fixed penalty fine has been issued as a result, you'd think the police might want to justify that decision by emphasising the mitigating factors. Instead, with the references to "fear and panic" and "adverse effect on tackling genuine reports of rape", it's hard to escape the conclusion that they - startlingly - consider themselves to have acted with a degree of severity in this instance.

The broader context here is the ongoing efforts to 'rebalance' the way the justice system treats the victims and perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, and thus boost the conviction rate. This approach is predicated on the assumption that wholly bogus complaints are extremely rare, and that therefore removing certain protections for the defendant will only have the effect of sending more of the guilty to prison, rather than risking miscarriages of justice. If that is to be the guiding philosophy, then surely instances like this where someone has been clearly demonstrated to have concocted a story from scratch become that bit more serious, as they threaten the integrity of the system. And yet an £80 fixed penalty sends out just one message - that this is a routine, relatively minor offence.

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