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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Everything you need to know about sexual offending

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700,000 people were sexually assaulted last year. Just 6,877 people were convicted of a sexual offence.

Yesterday (13 December 2018), the Office for National Statistics published an extremely informative article on sexual offending.

“Sexual offending: victimisation and the path through the criminal justice system” provides an overview of sexual offending in England and Wales, using a range of official statistics to give a picture of the prevalence of sexual offences, their reporting and recording and what happens to those who are charged with sexual offences.

By bringing all the relevant information together in one publication, the ONS has provided a valuable service for anyone seeking to get an understanding of sexual offending.

The overall conclusion is a powerful and dispiriting one:

The majority of cases of sexual offending do not come to the attention of the police, and many of those that do, do not result in a conviction for the perpetrator. Many offences don’t proceed further than the police investigation due to evidential difficulties.

Office for National Statistics

Main findings

  • The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that approximately 700,000 people aged 16 to 59 years were victims of a sexual assault in the last year. The majority of these cases will not enter the criminal justice system. Less than one in five victims of rape or assault by penetration reported their experience to the police.
  • The volume of sexual offences recorded by the police has almost tripled in recent years. However, these increases largely reflect improvements in police recording and more victims being willing to report. The number of offences recorded by the police remains well below the number of victims. Of the offences that do come to the attention of the police, many don’t progress further through the criminal justice system.
  • There has been a decrease in the proportion of cases resulting in a charge or summons outcome. This decline may be, in part, due to resource pressures on the police following the substantial increase in recorded sexual offences. This includes non-recent cases, which may take longer to investigate before an outcome can be assigned. Offences have also become increasingly complex, which can increase the time it takes to consider all the evidence.
  • Half of all sexual offences recorded by the police didn’t proceed further through the criminal justice system due to evidential difficulties. This figure reflects the challenges involved in investigating sexual offences, despite the majority of suspects being identified.
  • The Ministry of Justice recorded a 10% decrease in defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ courts for sexual offences in 2017. This is similar to the percentage reduction seen in police charges.
  • Crown Prosecution Service data show that three in five of rape-flagged prosecutions and four in five of prosecutions for other sexual offences resulted in a conviction. Of those that did not result in a conviction, over half were due to acquittals. A further 16% of rape-flagged cases and 13% of other sexual offences that did not result in a conviction were due to victim retraction, victim non-attendance or evidence of the victim not supporting the case.

Prevalence

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that approximately 700,000 adults aged 16 to 59
years had experienced sexual assault in the 12 months prior to interview. This is equivalent to 2.1% of the
population aged 16 to 59 years. The majority of victims were female, with approximately 560,000 female victims and 140,000 male victims. Women were nearly four times as likely as men to have experienced sexual assault in the last year (3.4% compared with 0.9%).

Police outcomes

Of all sexual offences recorded by the police in the year ending March 2018, the majority, 82%, were assigned an
outcome at the time of analysis. The other 18% were still under investigation and had not yet been assigned an
outcome. The proportion of sexual offences not assigned an outcome is higher than for other police recorded crime offences, reflecting the complexity of these offences.

In over half (51%) sexual offences, the police were unable to build a strong enough case for the offence to continue in the criminal justice system, or the victim or offender couldn’t be traced. The victim didn’t support further action in 32% of offences and the victim did support further action in 19%. Victims may not want to be involved in investigations for a number of reasons, for example:

  • worry that the process will be too distressing and/or a fear of being judged
  • the offence might have been committed by the victim’s partner and the victim may not wish the police to take action against their partner
  • the victim wanted the crime recorded but didn’t want further action taken on this occasion

Other offences recorded by the police that did not proceed further through the criminal justice system include:

  • 15% of offences where no suspect was identified
  • 3% of offences where the action taken was undertaken by another agency (for example, adult or children’s social care teams or other specialist health referral services)
  • 3% of offences where the prosecution was prevented or not in the public interest
  • 2% of offences where further investigation to support action was not in the public interest

Convictions

The MoJ recorded that 6,960 offenders were found guilty of sexual offences in all courts in England and Wales in 2017, compared with 7,511 in 2016 – a decrease of 7%. This follows a previously upward trend seen between 2013 and 2016. However, the number of offenders found guilty at all courts is 23% higher than in 2013. In 2017, there were 1,026 offenders found guilty of rape of a female, and 102 offenders found guilty of rape of a male.

Following a large decrease between 2012 and 2013 (61% to 52%), the conviction ratio for all sexual offences has
since slowly increased on a year-on-year basis. Levels are now back at a similar level to 2012 (62% in 2017).
However, for rape cases, conviction ratios have decreased since 2012 (41% to 36%).

Sentencing

Immediate custody accounted for the majority of sentencing outcomes for all types of sexual offences in 2017. The proportion of offenders sentenced that received immediate custody has remained at around 60% since 2012. However, the proportion of offenders receiving a suspended sentence has increased from 8% to 15% during this period. In contrast, the proportion of offenders receiving a community sentence has decreased from 26% in 2012 to 19% in 2017.

Average custodial sentence length (ACSL) has risen across all sexual offences between 2012 and 2017. The ACSL for rape in 2012 was eight years 8 months while just five years later it had risen to nine years 10 months.

Conclusion

The main trends are clear. Most sexual offences are not reported to the police. The police only succeeding in progressing half of those who are reported through the criminal justice system. Less than two thirds (62%) of all those prosecuted for sexual offences are convicted and only just over one in three (36%) of those prosecuted for rape are found guilty.

It was estimated that 700,000 people were sexually assaulted last year but just 6,877 individuals were convicted of a sexual offence – just less than 1%.

Those who are found guilty are likely to be sent to prison for an increasing length of time.

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