Thursday 21 November 2019

Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop: Sex crimes are hard to prosecute -- so give judges some guidelines

THE Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) operates the 24-hour Freephone helpline 1800 778888 for victims of rape and sexual abuse. The line received an unprecedented number of calls when the news broke that Graham Griffiths, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl, was handed a four-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay his victim €15,000.

The callers were members of the public and victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse.

There was a lot of anger expressed at how the sentence didn't reflect any real understanding of the impact of the crime on the victim -- that it gave a very bad message to the public that this type of crime can be compensated with money: if you have money you can avoid a custodial sentence.

Sexual crimes are very difficult crimes to prosecute because all too often it is one person's word against another's.

These are very serious crimes to be accused of, and everyone is entitled to a fair trial. The DRCC supports victims reporting these crimes and offers garda, sexual assault treatment unit and court accompaniment services to victims who wish to report.

The gardai are charged with investigating the crime and submitting the file to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in all sexual crimes.

The DPP then decides whether or not the case goes forward to court, and will only put cases forward where there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.

When she decides not to put a case forward, she doesn't give her reasons. The DRCC would support her giving reasons.

It can be extremely upsetting for the victim not to know why their case is not being progressed, and more often than not they think the reason is that they are not believed.

Following convictions in circumstances where the DPP believes the sentence to be unduly lenient, she can refer that sentence to the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Surely this case calls for such consideration.

In the case of Graham Griffiths, he admitted his guilt, which meant that the victim didn't have to go through the rigours of a full court process. However, the victim in this case showed enormous courage in staying the full course of the criminal justice system process, and no doubt she expected to get justice at the end of the day.

Ireland has one of the highest instances of victims of sexual crimes falling out of the criminal justice system after reporting.

While she didn't have to appear in court, she was entitled to read her victim impact statement, but because she was so traumatised she was not able to appear and had her statement read by a representative of the court. Did she get justice?

Suspending the sentence means that Mr Griffiths is free to leave the court and, provided he pays €15,000 and keeps the peace, he is free.

Perpetrators of sexual crimes not only need to be punished appropriately for committing these crimes, they must also be rehabilitated.

If Mr Griffiths had to serve a custodial sentence for his crime he would have access to the perpetrator programmes that are available in prison and be subject to the Sex Offenders Act.

He would have to undergo a risk assessment before he left prison and would be subject to the Act afterwards.

The DRCC would call for sentencing guidelines from the judiciary, as is the case in England and Wales where the Judicial Sentencing Council as well as setting out sentencing guidelines for judges also offers training to members of the judiciary.

We believe this would lead to greater consistency in sentencing and in turn to greater public confidence in our criminal justice system.

Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop is CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. DRCC operates the 24-hour national helpline 1800 778888

Irish Independent

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