Don't Panic

New rape sentencing plans will just be counterproductive

As I write this 'Le Perv' (the banker formerly known as Dominique Strauss Kahn) just checked out on bail from New York's Riker's Island jail where he was cooped up for allegedly attempting to rape the chambermaid cleaning his $3000 per night hotel room.

The contrast between the five star Sofitel and the prison must have been stark and perhaps if DSK is found guilty the disparity will be compounded if the authorities decide to submerge the well-groomed banker in the Gen Pop. He may have the opportunity to gain a better understanding of what fending off a rapist is actually like.

British prisons don't have the same fearsome reputation for extreme sexual violence as American lock-ups and so he wouldn't need to keep his soap on a rope if he'd assaulted a maid in The Savoy. That is if he even ended up inside given the government's fumbling of rape law reform this week.

The Women's Resource Centre stated that "[The Justice Secretary] Kenneth Clarke's appalling comments over rape sentencing smack not only of ignorance but of outright misogyny." Mr Clarke had been sent out to support his junior minister Crispin Blunt who'd made an announcement the day before saying that suspects who plead guilty to rape would have their sentences cut in half. Clarke duly poured petrol (or more likely brandy) on the flames by explaining during an interview on BBC Radio Five Live that this would only apply to less serious rapes and not, in his words "classic rape." The interviewer Victoria Derbyshire challenged Mr Clarke, stating "rape is rape — with respect." Only for Mr Clarke to respond "No, it's not", stating that date rape was "very confusing."

The average sentence for rape is five years, a fact unknown to Mr Clarke, who claimed that his plans would encourage more women to come forward because they knew they wouldn't face being humiliated in court. Asked if he had discussed his plans with rape victims he admitted he hadn't, leaving Miss Derbyshire to ask why a woman would endure the ordeal of reporting a rape and pressing charges if her rapist would probably be out in just over a year, with good behavior. That is less than the average sentence for assault.

The first Europe-wide study of rape conviction rates in 2009 showed that the proportion of cases resulting in a conviction has fallen to 6.5 per cent in England and Wales, and just 2.9 per cent in Scotland. By contrast, France had a conviction rate of 25 per cent in 2006. This legislation seems like an attempted quick fix because by making the punishment so lenient perpetrators are more likely to plead guilty meaning the conviction rates will rocket - allowing the coalition to say "Look at the progress we've made on rape convictions!" I've got another one for you Mr Clarke, let's say that murderers who confess will get three months community service. That'll help with the crime stats and will eliminate the costs involved with trials, lawyers and all that justice, which is another motive behind this law.

Last year a report by Baroness Stern highlighted how low rape convictions and the treatment of women by the criminal justice system prevent more victims coming forward. A problem that will not be helped by handing out puny punishments, which wouldn't be worth the trauma at the hands of a police force still not trained and able to deal sensitively with traumatized victims.

The 'SlutWalk' movement in Canada has seen women take to the streets to protest against a statement from a policeman that: "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." Mr Clarke is not fit for the job, not just because he doesn't have a grasp of his brief and is unaware of basic facts like the length of prison sentences but because his attitude seems similar to that of the Canadian cop - that in certain circumstances women are asking for it. Encouraging more women to come forward and increasing conviction rates will require more intelligent solutions than basically decriminalising rape.

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