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
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
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
Do we respond differently to sexual
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).
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
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
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)
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.
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).
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