Tough new laws to tackle sex offenders who “groom” children using cellphones and social media were passed Wednesday.
The amendments to the Penal Code create a host of new offenses that specifically deal with “sexual communication” with a child and allow for more severe penalties in cases where no physical assault takes place.
Attorney General Sam Bulgin said the changes were inspired, in part, by the recent case of track coach Ato Stephens, who he said had escaped with a “paltry sentence.” Mr. Stephens, who persuaded a teenage athlete to send him topless pictures of herself, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Mr. Bulgin said that case and others had highlighted a gap in Cayman Islands law when it comes to sex offenses committed online or on social media.
He said Mr. Stephens had to be prosecuted for abuse of an information and communication technology network, which carries a much lighter sentence than the new sexual offenses.
“He was convicted and sentenced to what all considered was a paltry sentence. The court had very limited power because of the state of the law,” Mr. Bulgin said.
“If he were convicted after this bill, he would have to be sentenced to at least seven years in prison.”
Mr. Bulgin said the changes to the law would allow the courts to deal with grooming, which he defined as attempting to befriend a child for sexual purposes, as a distinct offense. Previously such offenses were prosecuted under the ICTA law or dealt with as aggravating feature of an assault.
The bill creates eight new offenses, including sexual communication with a child, arranging to meet a child for sexual purposes, attempting to “procure a child for sexual activity,” causing a child to watch sexual activity and inviting a child to engage in sexual activity. Penalties initially ranged from four to 12 years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances and whether the perpetrator held a position of trust, but were revised upward after Opposition members raised concerns.
Opposition legislators Anthony Eden and Arden McLean had suggested, during the initial debate last week, that the sentences were too lenient for sexual offenses against children.
Following their comments, both Austin Harris, a government member and legislator for Prospect, and the Attorney General clarified that the law dealt with communication, not physical assault.
Mr. Harris said there was a danger of setting mandatory minimum sentences that did not allow flexibility for judges to consider the circumstances of each case. He cited an example of a relationship between an 18-year-old boy and a girl of almost 16, saying “adolescent young love” could end up being caught up in the range of offenses included in the law.
He added that the original sentencing guidelines in the law were already several notches above similar legislation in the U.K., where the guidelines indicate sentences of 1-2 years. Despite this, government raised the minimum sentences in the law to six years when the bill was passed Wednesday.
Mr. Bulgin also committed to review sentencing guidelines in the Penal Code for sexual assaults and similar offenses. He said he recognized community concern over what appeared to be lenient sentences for such offenses.
In his summation of the amendments, he clarified again that this law was looking specifically at communication and not at physical assault.
“What this bill is seeking to do is to address what sometimes happens before we get to the stage of actual physical contact between the offender and the victim.
“We are looking at the stage where the adult person has deliberately started a connection, a remote relationship with the eventual victim in order to gain the trust of that child – this usually happens now by social media, online chat rooms, instant messaging, email, WhatsApp or text.”