SEX offenders caught “grooming” youngsters online and downloading images of child abuse should avoid jail in favour of early intervention programmes in some cases, MSPs have been told.
More Scottish Government cash should be allocated to fund rehabilitation schemes for these offenders, in order to prevent future offending, according to national child sexual abuse organisation Stop It Now.
But the prospect of offenders avoiding prison for such crimes was branded “blatantly wrong” by opposition parties at Holyrood. The Scottish Government has insisted that the justice system is “tougher than ever” on offenders.
Online grooming, where youngsters are lured into forming a relationship with an adult over the internet, is a growing problem. Earlier this month, 21-year-old Sean Clode was jailed for grooming a 14-year-old Scottish schoolgirl, then abducting her and having sex with her.
Children’s charities have also called for a clearer approach to sentencing of people caught downloading images of child abuse, after high-profile murder cases in recent years.
Scotland is unique in targeting people under investigation for downloading images of child abuse with early intervention and group learning programmes soon after arrest but before conviction, according to Stop It Now.
They respond well during this “period of crisis”, which has the biggest impact on cutting future reoffending, according to the organisation’s national manager in Scotland, Martin Henry.
But there is a spiralling growth in online offending, including “grooming children and accessing/downloading indecent and illegal material concerning children”, he states in a submission to Holyrood’s justice committee.
More funding should be allocated to preventative measures, he adds. “Early intervention programmes [at the point of arrest] should be seen as an important part of a suite of alternatives to custody, which can meet the mental health needs of individuals and address thinking in a way which, for some offenders, can produce good outcomes [for the individual, their family and the public] without the need for custody.”
But Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said early intervention had to go “hand in hand” with tough sentencing. He said: “Allowing such culprits to dodge jail is blatantly wrong. This approach would be no deterrent at all, and would be an insult to victims.
“If anything, sentencing in these cases should be stronger.”
Scottish Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said any rehabilitation should be carried out in jail.
“Those committing such crimes must be punished, and offered suitable rehabilitation options while in prison to prevent them reoffending,” he said.
Children First wrote to justice secretary Kenny MacAskill demanding a more consistent approach to the prosecution and sentencing of people caught downloading images of children being abused.
It followed the cases of Mark Bridger, who murdered five-year-old April Jones last year after viewing online images of children being sexually assaulted. In a separate case this year, Stuart Hazell was jailed for murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp, after searching the internet for images of child sex abuse.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The justice committee will wish to consider the detail of this. However, the management of sex offenders in Scotland is tougher than ever before.”