Calls for sentencing reform as teen who raped girl of 12 is given three-year jail term
There have been calls for sentencing guidelines to be reviewed after a three-year term - only half of which will be served in prison - was handed to a teenager convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl in north Belfast.
The teenager, who met the girl via social media, was 16 at the time of the sex attack and studying for his GSCEs.
Now 18, he was convicted by a jury earlier this year of raping the 12-year-old and sexually assaulting her.
Sending the student to Hydebank young offenders' centre, Judge David McFarland branded the rape of a child a "serious offence" and spoke of the lasting impact the incident would have on the young victim.
Last night, Ulster Unionist justice spokesman Doug Beattie called for a "complete overhaul" of sentencing structures in Northern Ireland.
"I will be absolutely clear here. Our sentencing system here in Northern Ireland is absolutely farcical," he said.
"It needs a complete overhaul and review."
Mr Beattie said he believes that short sentences for what are seen as serious crimes may deter victims coming forward in the future.
"Until we start putting down sentences that act as a deterrent, we're going to go absolutely nowhere," he said.
Belfast Crown Court heard that since the incident in May 2017, the girl had been admitted to hospital after self-harming and taking tablets, and has trouble concentrating on school work. Crown barrister Philip Mateer QC also revealed she had been subjected to "name-calling on social media, even though she was the victim in all of this".
During the trial, the jury heard evidence from both the girl and her attacker.
The pair first came into contact on Facebook and agreed to meet in a park on the evening of May 17, 2017.
After a very brief conversation, the pair went into bushes, where sexual activity took place. The court heard that due to her age, the girl was not legally able to consent - and that while she may have agreed to certain acts, one serious sexual assault committed against her was not consented to and was "forced by coercive behaviour".
Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines and must take into account mitigating circumstances, such as early guilty pleas, co-operation with police and remorse, as well as aggravating factors, such as intent and excessive violence.
The Belfast Recorder noted that while the incident would have a lasting effect on the girl, there would also be long-lasting consequences for the defendant.
They said: "The rape of a 12-year old girl is a particularly serious offence, but I have to take into account the fact that you were only 16 at the time."
North Antrim MLA Paul Frew also criticised the sentence handed down to the rapist, who attacked the girl at the Waterworks park in the north of the city.
"Whilst we must respect the independence of the court and each case will be judged on its own details, the general public will be concerned that such a depraved crime does not come with a long sentence," he said.
"Whilst issues such as the age of the defendant may have been taken into account, it is important that the sentence handed down properly reflects the seriousness of the crime and the impact upon the victim."
Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden, who announced a review of sentencing policy in June 2016, said last night she was unhappy that in three years the Department of Justice had made no progress on the review.
"We're no further forward," Ms Sugden said.
"The department hasn't really pursued it after I left.
"But they are aware I am not happy about that.
"Departments are very quick to say that they cannot do anything in the absence of ministers, but they were very much given a clear steer from me when I was minister.
"There's no excuse, really. It's not as if this is something that people have forgotten about."