April 6, 2023 - 7:30am

In January 2022, new sentencing guidelines came into force in Scotland that required judges to make rehabilitation, rather than punishment, their primary consideration when sentencing under-25s — thereby introducing a formal presumption against prison for younger suspects.

At the High Court in Glasgow on Monday, 21-year-old Sean Hogg became a beneficiary of these new guidelines, when he was spared jail for raping a 13-year-old girl in Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian. “This offence, if committed by an adult over 25, [would] attract a sentence of four or five years,” the judge said during sentencing. He instead ordered Hogg to carry out 270 hours of unpaid work and placed him on the sex offenders register for three years. 

The response, understandably, has been one of outrage: J.K. Rowling tweeted that “young Scottish men are effectively being told ‘first time’s free’”, while the chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland said the charity was “shocked”. After all, given the strong correlation between age and crime, these new guidelines effectively presume against prison for almost half of all violent criminals.

In England and Wales, for instance, 43% of people convicted of homicide in 2021/22 were under 25 at the time of conviction — a figure that actually understates the size of the age skew, since there is significant time lag before a case comes to court (longer in recent years due to funding cuts). Sexual offences are also disproportionately likely to be committed by young men: one typical study found 46% of rapists to be under the age of 25, 17% under the age of 18, and 15% under 15. ONS data from recent years goes some way to supporting this. In other words, violent crime is very much a young man’s game.

The infantilisation of these young men is in keeping with a broader trend in the UK criminal justice system. As Scottish Conservative MSP Russell Findlay recently observed, many other offenders have been spared jail thanks to their relative youth, including a 17-year-old gang leader who left a firefighter with life-changing injuries. It is already the case that offenders given a so-called “life sentence” on average spend just 17 years in prison — which, given the youth of most violent offenders, often means being released back into the community before the age of 40. The system is already failing, and treating criminals under the age of 25 with even greater leniency will only make it worse.

It is also wildly out of step with public opinion. A majority of the public consistently tell pollsters that they would like the criminal justice system to be harsher, with only 2% of respondents in a 2022 YouGov poll saying sentences are currently “too harsh”. Perversely, the SNP has proposed lowering the voting age to 16, and already permits 16-year-olds to apply for a gender-recognition certificate. In Scotland, it seems that it is only criminals who are considered too young to make decisions.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.