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Last Updated: Monday, 11 June 2007, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
How can a rapist only be cautioned?
The Magazine answers...

Victim of crime
Just 5.3% of recorded rapes result in a conviction

An investigation by the BBC News website has found that nearly 8,000 sex offenders have been cautioned by police in England in the past five years - including 230 rapists. How can the law allow this?

Rape ruins lives, leaving victims with permanent mental scars. So it appears shocking that so severe a crime can sometimes result in such a minor penalty.

A caution is a formal recognition of a person's guilt, but means they otherwise escape punishment.

The Crown Prosecution Service's guidelines state that cautions are "not appropriate" for serious offences which can only be tried at Crown Court - such as rape. However, they also state there may be "unusual" cases where a caution may be appropriate "because of the particular circumstances of the offence or the offender".

A spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) says that this may include a 14-year-old boy having consensual sex with a girl aged 13 - which in law is classed as rape.

Alternatively, she adds, the victim may not want to prosecute, or the offence may have taken place so long ago that it is not in the interests of the victim's welfare to prosecute.

'Bit wary'

"You can't just steamroller over the wishes of the victim," the spokeswoman says.

"Also, you have to bear in mind the impact that a court case might have on them."

Having sex with a child aged 13 or under is automatically classed as rape. But if the "perpetrator" were a young person of a similar age, it is unlikely that pressing charges would benefit anyone, she adds.

In law, a 14-year-old boy having consensual sex with a girl of 13 is classed as rape
Victim may not wish to press charges
Or the rape may have taken place a long time ago

Kirsty Brimelow, a criminal barrister dealing with rape cases, says that most cautions apply to very old allegations.

"I do think we've got to be a bit wary of these statistics because I think they'd be more significant if it were accompanied by a public outcry by various victims who think that they have been ignored," she says.

"So their views are taken into account, but it would also be explained to them, for example, if it were felt that there was no realistic prospect of conviction but the defendant was offering a caution through his solicitor."

However, women's campaigners are sceptical.

Ruth Hall from the group Women Against Rape accepts that prosecuting children for having sex is in no-one's interests, but that there is no way of knowing what proportion of such cases made up the 230 rape cautions.

"The problem is that so-called 'historic' rapes are being let off too lightly," she adds.

"We were in contact with one woman who had been raped by her father as a child - it dominated her life, yet when eventually she came forward a decision was taken not to prosecute."

With just 5.3% of all recorded rapes resulting in a conviction, she says she had "no confidence" in the ability of the police or the CPS to judge whether a caution was appropriate.

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But Jim Gamble, head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, says cautions at least bring offenders within the remit of the criminal justice system, so they can be tracked by the authorities.

"A caution in that regard is not getting off," he said.

"It's being put on the sex offenders register and thereafter being monitored."

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