Rolf Harris is likely to leave jail before Christmas 2017, despite his sentence of almost six years.
The sentencing process is part law, part guidelines, part precedent, and part mystery.
Harris’ 12 guilty verdicts of sexual assault against children, committed over decades, which sent some of his victims into a spiral of alcoholism, depression and self-hatred, resulted in the final sentence “five years, nine months”.
Here is a guide as to how the sentence was reached, and what it means in practice.
Before 1985 was another age.
At that time the maximum sentence for indecent assault – even for the worst cases - was two years’ jail, or five if the girl was under 13.
After 1985 the law increased the maximum sentence to ten years – but in the case of Rolf Harris that only included the three counts of assault against Australian Tonya Lee.
Mr Justice Sweeney pointed out that most of the offences would these days attract “significantly higher maximum sentences”.
Six of the 12 counts would these days be called ‘assault by penetration’ and would carry a maximum sentence of life, and involve a starting point of around 8 years’ jail each.
However he was required to stick to the law as it was at the time of the offence.
Mr Justice Sweeney said he was taking into account the guidance on sentencing given by the Court of Appeal in a recent similar case.
Last year, BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall admitted 14 counts of indecent assaults against girls aged from 9 to 17, between 1967 and 1985.
The 83-year-old was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
The sentence caused an uproar, with pressure in the media for its review. The NSPCC complained it was too short for sex crimes against children, even crimes that took place a long time ago.
The sentence was reviewed by the Court of Appeal, which doubled the term to 30 months by making one of the counts into a consecutive, rather than concurrent term.
The judge started with each offence and decided how serious it was, compared to others of its type.
This gave a starting-point for the sentence, which was then adjusted according to ‘aggravating factors’. In Harris’ case Mr Justice Sweeney took into account several, including:
- Harris took advantage of the trust placed in him because of his celebrity status and because of his relationship with the main complainant.
- The age gap between him and his victims was “considerable”.
- Committing his offences while others were present or nearby added to his victims’ ordeal.
- What he did “had a significant adverse effect on each victim, particularly so in relation to ‘C’ who suffered severe psychological injury”.
- He has shown no remorse for his crimes at all.
Mr Justice Sweeney he took into account the fact that three of Harris’ four victims experienced only a “brief and opportunistic” assault.
Harris had no previous convictions and led an “upright” life since 1994, albeit “you got away with your offending for years”.
Many people had spoken well of Harris, and over many years he had dedicated himself to charitable causes.
He was not in the best of health and a prison term would “be particularly tough on you”, and on his unwell wife who would have to cope without him.
Mr Justice Sweeney also was asked that Harris “be enabled to spend (his) twilight years with (his) family”.
This is where the mystery comes in.
Each sentence for each count can be served concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (after) the others.
This is determined by how closely related the offences were – and other factors.
Each sentence length, and whether they are served concurrently or consecutively, is also decided with regard to the principle of ‘totality’.
This requires that the overall sentence must be “just and proportionate” to Harris’ crimes.
In regard to this, Mr Justice Sweeney said, he had reduced a number of sentences in order to make them add up to the desired amount.
The final breakdown
After all this, Mr Justice Sweeney reached the following decision.
Count 1 (his assault of ‘A’ in 1969 in Portsmouth) – 9 months imprisonment.
Count 2 (his assault of ‘B’ in 1978 in Cambridge) – 6 months, consecutive.
Count 3 (his assault of ‘C’ around 1980 in London) – 15 months, consecutive.
Counts 4, 5 (more assaults of ‘C’) – 15 months, concurrent.
Count 6 (another assault of ‘C’) – 12 months, concurrent.
Count 7 (another assault of ‘C’ before her 16th birthday) – 15 months consecutive.
Count 8 (another assault of ‘C’ aged under 16) – 12 months concurrent.
Count 9: (An assault of ‘C’ when she was 19) - 12 months consecutive.
Counts 10, 11: (assaults of Tonya Lee in 1986) - 9 months concurrent.
Count 12: (Another assault of Tonya Lee in 1986) - 12 months consecutive.
Altogether this adds up to 69 months of consecutive jail time, or 5 years and 9 months.
Under UK law, if a prisoner is serving a term of more than 12 months they will be released ‘on licence’ at the halfway point of the sentence.
The licence conditions, which last until the end of the full sentence, are to prevent re-offending and secure re-integration of the offender into the community. They typically include good behaviour, and not travelling outside the UK, and possibly a curfew at a permanent place of residence.
In Harris’ case, the ‘licence’ release date would be 34 months into the sentence – that is, around May 2017.
If a prisoner is suffering from a critical illness, or there are “tragic family circumstances”, they may be released earlier.