A debate about fairness in the British justice system ignited on Twitter after an English judge sentenced 30-year-old math teacher Jeremy Forrest to 5-and-a-half years in prison Friday for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student.
Most Twitter users who weighed in on the sentencing believed the sentence for Forrest was too harsh (the age of consent in England is 16 years old). They complained that Forrest got 5-and-a-half years, while former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall received only 15 months for abusing 14 children ranging in age from 9 to 17 from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Forrest, who is married, started a relationship with the girl, whom he taught at the Bishop Bell Church of England school in East Sussex, when she was 14 years old in 2011. The relationship turned sexual within days of her 15th birthday, according to the sentencing statement handed down by Lewes Crown Court Judge Michael Lawson.
According to the statement, Forrest started the relationship by sending lewd photos and messages to the girl, who became infatuated with him. Rumors started to circulate throughout the school, and Forrest took the girl with him to France when he was on the verge of being caught.
“Your behavior over this period had been motivated by self-interest and has hurt and damaged many people -- [the victim’s] family, your family, staff and pupils at the school and respect for teachers everywhere. It has damaged you too, but that was something you were prepared to risk,” Lawson told Forrest at his sentencing. “You now have to pay that price.”
Meanwhile, the girl's family is defending Forrest, and the now 16-year-old plans on rekindling her relationship with her former teacher once he gets out of prison. “They still love each other. It has survived his arrest and trial and everything else. Once he is released, he plans to go straight to her and restart their relationship," a family friend told the Telegraph. “After she was brought home to Britain, the schoolgirl wrote to his parents to apologize for what happened. She said she felt safer with Jeremy than she ever did at home, at school or with her friends.”
Lawson sentenced Forrest to 5 years -- 4-and-a-half years for five counts of sexual offenses and one year for the abduction. The sentencing was seen as extreme by most Twitter users. They compared Forrest’s sentence to Hall’s and viewed the former BBC broadcaster’s crimes as more serious.
Five years for Jeremy Forrest and 15 months for Stuart Hall, errrr, what??
— Dan Shepherd (@liverpooldeep) June 21, 2013
Feel bad for Jeremy Forrest, it was a consensual relationship but no one looks badly on the girl do they? 5.5 years is way too harsh
— Becki Pearce (@beckipearce01) June 21, 2013
Jeremy Forrest gets 5 years in Jail yet people like Stuart Hall get a slap on the wrist and a few months in custody. How does that work?
— Simon Osborne (@flibblesan) June 21, 2013
While Twitter users couldn’t come to grips with what they viewed as injustice, the UK Criminal Law Blog explains why there could be such a disparity. For one, the blog maintained, Forrest repeatedly had sex with the same victim, while Hall’s crimes of indecent assault don’t rise to the same seriousness in the eyes of British law.
“On the face of it, this [disparity] seems strange. There are two reasons, however, why it makes sense. Firstly, the offending is different. Whilst Mr. Hall committed lots of offenses against different victims, they were mainly ‘low level’ offenses (in the sense that there are more serious offenses that people commit, not that they were not serious). Mr. Forrest only had one victim, but he repeatedly had sexual intercourse with his victim, which the law treats as more serious,” according to the blog post titled “Questions and Answers on Forrest and Hall.”
Also, Hall was subject to the laws written at the time of his crimes, the blog explains.
“Mr. Hall’s offending occurred between 1967 and 1985 when the attitude of the public to this sort of offending was very, very different. Much criticism could be leveled at the laws of the time (with hindsight). The maximum sentence for what Mr. Hall did was either 2 or 5 years at the time (whereas had he committed those offenses now the maximum sentence is life), the blog states. “For this reason, it is not as simple as saying Mr. Forrest got 4-and-a-half times what Mr. Hall got and therefore the law treats Mr. Forrest’s offending as 4-and-a-half times as bad as Mr. Hall. It doesn’t work like that. In essence -- comparing the sentences of Mr. Hall and Mr. Forrest is comparing apples and oranges -- the circumstances of the relevant law are so different that no meaningful comparison can be made.”