“We cannot just treat them like mini adults”: young people who sexually offend

Joanne Walker is co-leading the International Centre’s response to the Sentencing Council’s consultation on the new draft guideline for sentencing young people who sexually offend. In this post she summaries key messages from practitioners working with young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour who attended a roundtable event exploring the new guideline.

 As an applied research centre, the International Centre is committed to finding ways to share our research findings with those who are responsible for creating and implementing policy. The Sentencing Council consultation provided an opportunity for the Centre to bring together representatives from the Sentencing Council and practitioners working with young people who display harmful sexual behaviour to reflect on the research and practice evidence in this area. Lia Latchford from the Msunderstood Partnership presented a summary of relevant findings from our research to stimulate discussion – focusing particularly on learning generated by our contextual safeguarding programme.

The roundtable event was very constructive, highlighting important considerations for the Sentencing Council in their development of the guideline – particularly when thinking about young people who sexually offend in a group context- as well as providing an opportunity for practitioners and researchers to feed into policy development. Key messages are summarised below, illustrated by selected quotes from those who attended.

Key messages:

Arguably the most important message that came out of the roundtable event was that when considering the sentencing of young people who sexually offend sentencers need to recognise that the motivation and principle aim for youth sentencing comes from a very different place to that of adult sentencing. It is, therefore, crucial that the guideline does not read like a “mini adult” guideline. In this regard, the new guideline carries an important message: that the principles surrounding youth sentencing are to prevent offending and to have regard for the welfare of the young offender. The roundtable highlighted a series of other important messages around sentencing youths, many of which reinforce the findings of our research.

Offender mitigating factors and associated vulnerabilities

There are a number of wider vulnerabilities and associated issues that sentencers should be mindful of when considering young people who sexually offend. These include factors in the background of young offenders, as well as present risks and harm that an offender may be exposed to. It is important to remember that vulnerabilities and harm exits both ‘inside and outside of the family home’. Factors for consideration include;

  • Experiences of violence and abuse (sexual, physical and emotional)
  • Exposure to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Exposure to criminal behaviour
  • Involvement in harmful peer groups, including gangs
  • Mental disorder or learning disability
  • Speech and language difficulties
  • Trafficking
  • Neglect
  • Exposure to violence and abuse (sexual, physical and emotional) and/or sexual material which is unsuitable for the age of the offender
  • Unstable living or educational arrangements
  • A trigger event such as the death of a close relative or a family breakdown
  • The age and developmental stage of the offender
  • The extent that the offender was able to make free, informed choices around the commission of the offence.

Victim/perpetrator paradigm

In a number of cases involving young people who sexually offend the levels of victimhood and culpability are complex”. For some young people, the facilitation or direct perpetration of a sexual offence could be for reasons of self-protection. For example, where the consequences of refusing to engage in the abusive incident could put the offender at a greater risk of harm and abuse. In such situations it is important to engage with the young person’s offending behaviour within the context of their own victimisation. This is particularly the case in group perpetrated sexual offences where it is common to “see young people move across a perpetrator- victimhood spectrum”.


We need to be very careful when providing guidance around the extent of harm experienced by a victim of a sexual offence. In its draft form the guideline distinguished between ‘no harm’ and ‘significant harm’ caused, when considering the possibility of custodial sentences for young offenders. Roundtable attendees were concerned about this, and argued that “The existence of no-harm caused to a victim of a sexual offence should be refuted and the guidance should, as a starting point, assume that there is always some harm caused.” Harm can be both physical and psychological and the degree of harm caused should not be assumed based on the type of offence committed. Non-contact sexual offences can be as harmful to victims as contact sexual offences and it is important for the guideline to reflect this. The extent of harm should be assessed on a case-by-case basis taking into account the victim’s perspective. When doing so, however, consideration should be given to;

  • The fact that the victim may not perceive themselves to be a victim of abuse and therefore fail to see the true extent of harm caused
  • The victim may want to downplay their victimhood or may be pressured into doing so and therefore may fail to report the true extent of harm caused
  • The full extent of harm caused may not fully manifest at the point of the trial and it is therefore “important to take into account continuing harm”.

Offending in groups

The roundtable had a particular focus on the way that group contexts might present mitigating and aggravating factors that would reduce or increase the seriousness of the offence. In relation to this, practitioners felt it was important to highlight the following messages:

  • When considering group offending it is important to think beyond gangs. Youth group offending can also occur within peer groups and groups involving both adults and children.
  • Understanding the group context is vital when considering sentencing. Peer groups and wider social environments can “enforce, reinforce and escalate negative behaviour”, normalising sexual harms and risks. It is therefore important to look at how “norms” are constructed within the group context and the wider environment in which the group operates.
  • The phrase peer influence or peer environment better captures the experience of young offenders than peer pressure. “Peer pressure” has particular connotations and suggests the presence of explicit acts of pressure rather than the dynamics that the group context and environment may play in influencing offending behaviour.
  • When considering the seriousness of an offence, group offending behaviour is not necessarily more serious than individual offending behaviour and assumptions should not be made around this. In fact some attendees suggested that “It is often more worrying when young people sexually offend on their own than in a group”.
  • The roles that young offenders play within the group are significant when considering mitigating and aggravating factors.  We need to look at who the leaders, followers and bystanders are within a group setting and the context which shapes these roles.
  • “The complexities that come with any kind of group behaviour mean that sentencers are unlikely to get a straightforward case”.


If you would like a copy of the International Centre’s submission to the Sentencing Council consultation, which provides references for the research findings underpinning our response as well as a full summary of the roundtable please email joanne.walker@beds.ac.uk

Please visit the MsUnderstood website for more information on contextual safeguarding and group offending.

If you would like to submit a response to the consultation you can find the details herePlease note the consultation closes on the 3rd August 2016.