Sex offenders

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Sexual offences are increasingly in the news and public concern is often focused on the idea that released prisoners will re-offend. Is re-offending a major problem? If so why and how should we respond to it? With limited resources, what should we prioritise to make the most difference? What do our choices tell us about own values?

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Research: Paul Eustice; editing: Perry Walker; special adviser: Phil Collins.

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  • Educate the community, for example so that people know where to go if they have concerns.
  • Use suitable treatment programmes to guide sex offenders towards reintegration into society
  • Make a list of sex offenders publicly available
  • Ask government agencies to monitor and control the movements of sex offenders

What is the problem?

Why are we asking this question, and why now?

The most recent figure for sexual offences is for the year ending September 2013. It shows a 17% increase in the number of police recorded sexual offences compared with the previous year. (1)

That may have been an increase in actual offences or an increased willingness of victims to come forward. It could be partly due to a change in police procedure, encouraging victims to give evidence (32 p8) but it could also be due to the so-called ‘Yewtree effect’. Operation Yewtree is a police investigation into sexual offences committed by major public figures like Jimmy Saville and has encouraged people to report similar but unrelated offences, even if they were committed many years previously (2)

Whatever the facts behind the figures, increasing attention is paid by the media to the problem of sexual offences, in particular violent sexual offences and especially those against children. By 2015 news stories were circulating about high-level conspiracies among police officers and politicians and the public might easily be led to believe that sexual offenders are (a) widespread (b) well organised and (c) likely to re-offend repeatedly. In fact, sexual offenders form only 15% of the prison population and are less likely to re-offend than most other prisoners (56), but the nature of the worst offences can distort the argument.

What is a sexual offence?

What we consider a sexual offence has varied over time and varies by country.

In the UK, the term ‘sexual offence’ covers a very wide spectrum, from rape to kerb crawling, running a brothel, having sex in a public toilet, soliciting and voyeurism (Peeping Toms) (19, 57). Official statistics for ‘offences’ will include a large number of relatively minor incidents, very different to the most dramatic and newsworthy stories. Despite the recent focus on violent paedophiles, a sexual offence need not involve children, nor is paedophilia always violent.

Violent offences and offences against children tend to receive the most publicity and provoke public outrage, but this is not always based on an understanding of the complex issues involved. In Wales in 2000 a qualified paediatrician was driven from her home by locals who mistook her for a convicted paedophile (3).

To be sexually attracted to children is not in itself an offence but an 18 year old who has consensual sex with a girlfriend who is not quite 16 commits a sexual offence. The legal age of consent varies in different countries (12 in Angola, 21 in Bahrain) and used to be only 12 in the UK (5). Homosexual acts were illegal in the UK until 1967 and rape within marriage was only recognised as an offence in 1991. Laws sometimes take time to catch up with public opinion.

Do we respond differently to sexual offenders?

A response to sexual offenders involves moral choices. For example, the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape then released after serving 2.5 years. He wanted to return to his old club. Commentators argued over whether sexual crimes, unlike ‘ordinary’ crimes, were unforgivable and could not be erased just by serving a sentence. They started to argue over ‘different kinds’ of rape, some being more forgivable than others, and a number of people found their principles in conflict (4/6/40/41).

Our principles of fairness, enshrined in law, insist that a price should be paid for a criminal act but thereafter the criminal should be allowed to reform and be re-integrated into society. Many find it difficult to apply that principle to sexual offenders (10), either because they suspect they are different in kind - more dangerous - or because they feel emotionally they just cannot accept that kind of crime. Often, they find it difficult to separate different kinds and levels of offence under pressure from a generalised and even dramatised public outrage, fed by a barrage of media stories about child abuse and sexual exploitation.

Can sexual offenders be rehabilitated?

It is not simple to say what ‘rehabilitation’ means. Does it require admission of guilt? Does it mean not committing another criminal act or not being tempted by feelings or fantasies that could lead to such an act? What about discussing but not actually committing such an act? Can any of this be diagnosed or predicted with any degree of certainty?

Can someone be properly rehabilitated if we refuse to allow them back into society for that purpose?

What is the situation in law?

Anyone guilty of a sexual offence will be placed on a register and, after release, obliged to notify the police of any change of address, any foreign travel and any occasion when they are “residing or staying in a relevant household for a period of at least 12 hours with a child who is under the age of 18”.(25)

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows ordinary ex-offenders to return to ‘normal life’ and not have their whole lives ruined by a single act. Once they have paid the price laid down by the courts, and after a suitable period of rehabilitation, the offence is considered ‘spent'. It does not have to be disclosed on any formal documents or applications. However, there are exceptions, especially for sexual offenders.

If the sentence was between 6 and 30 months the restrictions last for 10 years, or 7 years of below 6 months in prison (or 3.5 years if 17 or under when convicted).When applying for a job where they have authority over or extensive contact with people under 18, or vulnerable older or disabled people, for example a social worker, teacher, child minder or coach, all sexual offenders have to declare all convictions, even spent ones. This is intended to strike a balance between fairness to the ex-offender, who may be reformed and trying to reintegrate, and the potential risk to vulnerable groups (11,18).

Since 2003, any UK citizen guilty of sexual offences abroad will have their name entered on the UK register. This was been widened to create a Violent and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR), so that it also includes “those imprisoned for more than 12 months for violent offences, and unconvicted people simply thought to be at risk of offending” (25).

A Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO) was created which “contains prohibitions on an individual doing any of the things stipulated within it. These might include having unsupervised contact with anyone under the age of 18 or being present in certain places such as schools or play parks.” (25)

Since 2008, the child sex offender disclosure scheme “allows parents, carers and guardians to formally ask the police to tell them if someone has a record for child sexual offences” (12). This was popularly known as Sarah’s Law, because it was developed after 8 year old Sara Payne was murdered by a man who had already been convicted of a sexual offence against a child but later released. It does not allow as much public disclosure as ‘Megan’s Law’, which followed the rape and murder of a seven year old child named Megan Kanka in the USA by a previously convicted molester of children. American parents can now enter their zip code into a web site and be told whether anyone on a register has moved into their area (13), although interpretation of the law varies between states.

The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) merged to become the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS,ref. 20) and it can be used to check for offences committed by applicants for positions such as teacher or youth worker.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 gave courts increased powers to limit movement to prevent criminal acts, including sexual offences, so that potential perpetrators could be barred from approaching potential victims.

Systems for controlling released offenders can now include lie detector tests, legal orders to restrict use of the internet and enforced treatment programmes.

So where do we go now?

UK law protects ex-offenders from what could turn into vigilante actions and the guidelines laid down for multi-agency protection arrangements (MAPPA) try to maintain a delicate balance between protecting the public from those who might reoffend and protecting ex-offenders who are trying to reintegrate from unwarranted intrusion and loss of human rights (14).

In response to public concern and the perceived scale of the problem, websites offer advice for parents on how best to protect their children within the UK’s system (15,16) and The National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers(17) supports professionals dealing with sexually aggressive individuals in their line of work.

With such a variety of individual cases to consider, what principles and values should we apply when deciding how to treat sexual offenders once they have served their time?

Sources and references

28 The Shaming of Sexual Offenders: Risk, Retribution and Reintegration, Anne-Marie McAlinden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 5 Apr 2007
39 Independent 9th Feb 2015 p4. See also 4 Nov 2014 : Column 797
40 The Independent. Tuesday 6th January p12-13
41 The Observer 11.01.2015p43
42 Documentary Inside the Sex Offenders’ Prison, Rex Bloomnstein 31/3/2015 radio 4
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