Sexual crimes in the context of sentencing consistency – an example from Finland

Tiina Malin. Photo: Joel Grandell.

By Tiina Malin

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a crime type that among other sexual offences repeatedly rouses heated public debates. Often the outcome in these discussions is that the public does not find the sentences of these crimes to be harsh enough. Moreover, the topic is regularly reported on by the media. When visiting NSfK’s research seminar this spring, I was pleased to note that studies on sexual crimes were broadly represented there as well. I was also taking part with a presentation on my dissertation project’s first article, in which my colleague Maiju Tanskanen and I are going to examine the consistency of sentencing for CSA in Finnish district courts. But why have we chosen this crime type for this examination?

Studies on regional sentencing consistency often focus on crimes that are relatively explicit to judge. This is due to the fact that it would be crucial to control all the legal crime characteristics for the analysis, and when dealing with more complex crimes, this gets harder. Sexual crimes are often difficult to judge as several factors affect the severity of these crimes. Choosing CSA for our analysis was actually partly coincidence. An earlier study that I was working with concentrated on the sanction practices in CSA cases. For this study, we undertook a massive task of creating numerical data by manually coding from judgement documents. In our current study, it was possible to benefit from this task and at the same time get to use this rather unique dataset.

Sentencing of all crime types should naturally be consistent between different courts, and sexual crimes are no exception. Still, these crimes have some special features. First, as these offences vary largely based on their severity, it is not possible to make any observations about the penal practice based on the criminal title and given sanction. Additionally, most sexual crime convictions (almost all CSA convictions) are given in secret. Second, earlier studies have suggested that common offences might have a more consistent sentencing practice than rare ones, and it is thus important to examine different crime types. It is also evident that the public debate on sexual crimes and their sanctions as well as consistency on sentencing are all themes largely connected to trust in the juridical system.

In Finland, sexual crimes are now particularly topical, as the law on them is going through substantial changes. The role of consent will be strengthened, and crimes against children and adults will be separated under different titles. The sanctions will also be harshened. The new law is expected to enter into force at the beginning of 2023. Research on sexual crimes remains crucial after the new legal reforms, not only in regional aspects but also on the penal practice in a broader sense. Accordingly, we expect our results to be published in the near future and hope that the discussion on these topics will continue.

Tiina Malin works as a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, University of Helsinki. Her dissertation focuses on the consistency of sentencing, which will be examined with both quantitative and qualitative methods.