Good news breaks from Newcastle Crown Court, where four men have been convicted and sentenced for serious offences involving child sexual exploitation. Soran Azizi, Palla Pour, Ribas Asad and Saman Faiaq Obaid each received sentences of imprisonment for crimes including trafficking for sexual exploitation, sexual activity with children and supplying controlled drugs, the latter a grimly familiar tool used by abusers to achieve the former.
As I say, good news, and a good job by the Crown Prosecution Service. So why does it sound as if I’m taking a run-up to go off on a peevish tangent? Well, it’s because – and I accept that it sounds like a little thing, but bear with me – it’s because of this tweet from the official CPS account:
— CPS (@cpsuk) November 3, 2017
For now, let’s put to one side the question of whether this feeds into an increasing, Americanised tendency by the CPS to publicly cheer “tougher” sentences (this traditionally not being the role of the prosecutor in England and Wales, in stark contrast to the US system). I instead want to look briefly at that number – 32 years – because I think it’s an example of a deeply unhelpful trend in modern reporting.
The figure of 32 years is arrived at by aggregating the sentences of the four defendants. Azizi got 6 years, Pour got 12 years, Asad got 9 ½ years and Obaid received 4 years 9 months. And this aggregation, when you think about it, is an entirely pointless exercise. It tells us nothing about the seriousness of the offences committed. It tells us nothing about the sentence imposed in respect of each man. It tells us nothing about how long they will serve, and – importantly to many people – when they will be released.
Its only purpose appears to be to present an eye-catching headline figure to draw the reader in to the story. In a tabloid newspaper, this is one thing. But by the CPS?
The problem is not just that this headline does little to educate the casual reader who doesn’t study the press release down to the Notes to Editors. It’s that it contributes to a serious disconnect we have in criminal sentencing between the system and the general public. One of the most common complaints we hear from non-lawyers is that sentences frequently don’t mean what people think they mean. Part of this is because of the inherent complexity of sentencing legislation and early release provisions, which even judges struggle to interpret (Lord Philips in the Supreme Court famously said that “hell is a fair description” of this legislation). But part of the issue is because even in straightforward sentencing cases, the basics are not reported in their full context.
Anyone scanning the CPS Twitter account and seeing the words “32 years” would be forgiven for thinking that the men convicted in Newcastle were likely to be serving at least the best part of a decade in prison. In the case of Obaid, he will serve a maximum of 2 years and 4 ½ months, minus any time he has served on remand awaiting his sentence. None of the defendants will serve anything even close to half of 32 years. The most any one of them will serve is 6 years (Pour). Nowhere in the press release, or even in the notes to editors, is this spelt out. One can only hope that the vulnerable young victims of this predatory offending have had the real position fully explained to them.
I appreciate that the CPS tweeter was no doubt aiming for snappy, 140-character brevity, and that the main takeaway is that serious criminal behaviour has been successfully prosecuted and justly dealt with; but I do think this is a problem. This kind of headline inflation of sentences is how we end up with ridiculous red-top myths about serious sex offenders being released only a couple of years into a 22-year sentence, which in turn serves only to feed a toxic circular narrative of “soft sentences” and “joke justice”. We can’t possibly expect the public to have faith in criminal sentencing if the system adopts the same clickbait tropes.
I devote a lot of words on this blog to chiding journalists about accurate reporting of criminal cases. It’s regrettably evident that some need to be directed at those of us in the system as well.