Longer Prison Terms for Sex Offences, Government and Court Reforms Drive Increase

Media Release

Embargoed until 00:01 a.m. (AEST) Tuesday 22 June 2021

A report released today by the Sentencing Advisory Council shows that sex offences* – especially rape, incest and offences against children – in Victoria are receiving longer prison sentences than they were 10 years ago.

The Council undertook this research into sex offences following multiple legislative reforms designed to make imprisonment mandatory (Category 1 offences) and increase the lengths of prison sentences (standard sentence offences) for certain sex offences, coming into effect in 2017 and 2018. Victoria’s Court of Appeal has also frequently indicated that sentences for certain sex offences should increase.

In its report, the Council analysed Victorian court sentencing data for the 10 years to 2019 to identify whether there had been a change in sentencing practices for sex offences, and if so, whether any of the legislative and judicial reforms were responsible.

The six sex offence types analysed in the report, beginning with the most commonly sentenced, are:

  • sexual assault of a child (4,595 charges)
  • other sexual assault offences (3,644 charges)
  • sexual penetration of a child (2,454 charges), most of which involved children aged 10 or 12 to 15** (1,772 charges)
  • incest (1,110 charges), mostly against a child or stepchild
  • rape (1,003 charges)
  • persistent sexual abuse of a child aged under 16 (143 charges).

Overall, at least 55% of sex offences sentenced in Victoria were committed against children – with most incest involving children, that figure is closer to 64%.

The report finds that:

  • the introduction of standard sentences has caused a noticeable increase in the lengths of prison sentences for relevant sex offences
  • a number of Court of Appeal and High Court decisions (‘the Dalgliesh decisions’) have contributed to average prison sentences almost doubling for incest with a child (from about 4 years to 7 years)
  • all sex offences classified as Category 1 offences received imprisonment as mandated by law, but all would probably have received imprisonment anyway due to the seriousness of the offending. However, in a small number of cases, there is a significant risk that this mandatory sentencing scheme will result in some people going to prison when a more merciful sentence may be warranted in the circumstances of their case
  • 97% of sex offenders were male. In the specific context of incest against children, stepparents – particularly stepfathers – were over eight times more likely than biological parents (as a proportion of all parents) to be sentenced for incest
  • while the number of rapes and sexual assaults recorded by police each year have approximately doubled in the 10 years to 2019, there has been no apparent increase in the number of rape and sexual assault offences sentenced by courts.

The Council has also published a short report that summarises key findings from the main report. The short report includes additional case studies that illustrate the range of circumstances in which sex offending can occur, including how varied the seriousness of the offending and the culpability of offenders can be.

Quotes Attributable to Council Chair Professor Arie Freiberg

‘This report shows that sex offences, especially against children, are receiving more severe sentences now than they were a decade ago. It also tells us that this is due to a variety of factors: legislative reforms, a number of cases by the Court of Appeal calling for an increase in sentencing practices for certain offences, and an improved understanding of the lasting harms of sexual abuse.’

‘The case studies in the main report also highlight the fact that mandatory sentencing is a blunt tool that fails to account for the handful of rare and extraordinary cases where justice would normally call for mercy and a non-custodial sentence.’

The report, Sentencing Sex Offences in Victoria: An Analysis of Three Sentencing Reforms, and the short report, Sex Offences in Victoria: 2010–2019, will be available on the Council’s website on the morning of Tuesday 22 June 2021.

*Sex offences: The Council’s report focuses exclusively on contact sex offences, which involve some form of physical contact between the victim and the offender (or a third person). It does not include non-contact sex offences such as producing or disseminating child pornography.

**Children aged 10 or 12 to 15: Due to legislative changes in March 2010, child sexual penetration offences involving children aged 10 to 15 and children aged 12 to 15 are analysed together at various points in the report.