Tiina Malin – NSfK ResearchSeminar 2021

Child sexual abuse – trends in offence characteristics and sanction practices in Finland

Tiina Malin, PhD-student, Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, University of Helsinki

Public debate on sexual crimes and their sanctions has been remarkably active in Finland for a couple of decades. As a result, chapter 20 of the Finnish Penal Code concerning sexual offences has gone through several changes in the 21st century. Studies concerning the sanction practices after these changes have been scarce, however. In 2019, the Ministry of Justice set up a new working group to plan major changes to chapter 20 of the Penal Code and evaluate the needs to tighten sanctions in sexual crimes against children.

After setting up the working group, Ministry of Justice made an agreement with the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy about carrying out a study concerning the legal praxis in sexual crimes against children. This summary is based on a Finnish report of this study published in last year (Malin 2020). The study was conducted in a way that made it possible to compare the results with a similar study published in 2009. That study described cases of sexual crimes against children convicted in 2006 (Hinkkanen 2009). Legislation changed significantly in 2011 so the comparison between these studies shows the effect these changes had on the application of the law.

Data and methods

The study was based on court material data from the database of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy. It involves court material of all sentences for sexual crimes against children for the years 2017-2018 given by Finnish district courts and courts of appeal (n=438). Naturally, as the data consist of official crime records, it describes only the cases that have been brought to the attention of authorities and sentenced, not the actual range of sexual violence against children.

Background: Trends in the quantity of the crimes – recorded crime and hidden crime

Cases of child sexual abuse in the official crime records have increased strictly in the past decades. The number of crimes reported to the police has multiplied merely in the 21st century and since the beginning of 1980, the growth has been even more radical. One cause of the increase is enhancement in the control of authorities (Hinkkanen 2009). Acts that fill the legal definition of child sexual abuse are being recognized better and the definition has extended. The propensity to report crimes to the police has also risen and this is partly due to the legislative changes that have been made to improve different authorities’ obligations to report. At the same time, new channels for child sexual abuse have emerged with increasing use of the Internet and social media.

Yet, recorded crime reflects just a portion of overall crime rate. One common way to discover hidden crime is through crime surveys. In Finland, there has been conducted three large and nationally representative victim surveys for children to obtain their experiences for violence and abuse. The results of these surveys indicate more positive picture than the statistics above. Regarding to the latest child victim survey, sexual experiences that ninth graders have had with adults have declined from previous child victim surveys’ results. In 1988, prevalence of sexual contacts between adults and children was 12 percent, in 2008 seven percent while in 2013 it was four percent. (Fagerlund et al., 2014, see also Ellonen et al., 2008 & Sariola, 1990.)

Results: Changes in sentencing praxis in the 2000s

Changes in the law in 2011 that were mentioned above, changed also the sentencing praxis. One of the most crucial change in 2011 was transferring crimes that included penetrating abuse from under the definition of child sexual abuse to under the definition of aggravated child sexual abuse. This affected the amounts of both convicted child sexual abuse cases and aggravated child sexual abuse cases. The former dropped and the latter multiplied. While the number of aggravated child sexual abuse convictions increased, the characteristics of them also changed. Crimes committed by a partner of the victim, acts that lasted a shorter time period and crimes against older victims than before were now convicted as aggravated. In 2006 almost all crimes involving mentioned characteristics were convicted as a basic form of child sexual abuse.

It is notable that even when the number of aggravated child sexual abuse convictions multiplied, the crimes committed didn’t change more serious in general. The amount of acts that included penetrating abuse was in fact lowered from the earlier study (Hinkkanen 2009). Instead, a significant change happened in the quantity of crimes committed through internet. As said in the introduction, the increased use of internet has opened new ways for the offenders. In 20 percent of the convictions, the offender had met the victim through social media. Over one fourth of all the child sexual abuse cases in the data happened via internet. In 2006 this number was below four percent.

In 2017-2018 almost half of the convicted offenders in sexual crimes against children were 15-24 years old, one fourth was 15-19 years old. The amount of young offenders convicted of aggravated child sexual abuse has risen greatly. The number of young offenders (under 21-year-olds) has grown between the years 2005 and 2018 from 13 percent to 31 percent. This has had an impact on the convicted sanctions as well. The percentage of unconditional imprisonment of all sanctions convicted from aggravated child sexual abuse has halved while the amount of other sanctions, specially the combination of conditional imprisonment and community service, have grown. All in all, the total number of unconditional imprisonment has still risen due to the increased amount of aggravated child sexual abuse convictions. The mean lengths of average prison sentences in sexual crimes against children were lengthened as well after 2011: conditional imprisonments on average of three months and unconditional imprisonments six months.

Conclusion

Examining the effects that legislative changes have on sentencing practise is important, especially when new changes are being made. Besides providing information for the legislation process, the results are also crucial for consistent legal praxis, seeing that most judgement documents in sexual crimes are kept secret. The effects that changes of 2011 had on legal practise were wide. Proposal of the new legislation will be handled in the parliament in the autumn of 2021. Planned changes are also going to be significant.

References

Ellonen, N., Kääriäinen, J., Salmi, V., & Sariola, H. (2008). Lasten ja nuorten väkivaltakokemukset: Tutkimus peruskoulun 6. ja 9. luokan oppilaiden kokemasta väkivallasta. Oikeuspoliittisen tutkimuslaitoksen tutkimustiedonantoja 87, Poliisiammattikoulun raportteja 71/2008.

Fagerlund, M., Peltola, M., Kääriäinen, J., Ellonen, N., & Sariola, H. (2014). Lasten ja nuorten väkivaltakokemukset 2013. Lapsiuhritutkimuksen tuloksia. Poliisiammattikoulun raportteja 110, Tampere.

Hinkkanen, V. (2009). Lapsen seksuaalinen hyväksikäyttö. Tutkimus rangaistuskäytännöstä ja seksuaalirikosten uusimisesta. Oikeuspoliittisen tutkimuslaitoksen tutkimustiedonantoja 92. Oikeuspoliittinen tutkimuslaitos, Helsinki.

Malin, T. (2020). Lapsiin kohdistuneiden seksuaalirikosten rangaistuskäytäntö. Katsauksia 44/2020. Kriminologian ja oikeuspolitiikan instituutti, Helsinki.

Sariola, H. (1990). Lasten väkivalta- ja seksuaalikokemukset. Kotona koettu väkivalta ja seksuaalikokemukset aikuisten kanssa. Tutkimus suomalaisista peruskoulun 9.-luokkalaisista vuonna 1988. Lastensuojelun keskusliitto, julkaisu 85, Helsinki.