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22 February 1997

Undermining Justice

Helen Reece, from Freedom and Law, takes issue with suggestions that the UK needs a paedophile register. The result she says, will be to undermine a basic principle of justice

According to a draft Home Office report released this week at least 110,000 convicted paedophiles are living in England and Wales. A High Court decision which will make life more difficult for one convicted sex offender directly, and an unquantifiable number indirectly, was also reported widely. The London Borough of Hounslow gained the High Court's approval for their use of a man's record of assaults against children as a reason not to rehouse him. Both of these news items come in the wake of the publication in Australia of a 'paedophiles' register' containing hundreds of names and some photographs of convicted paedophiles. The author has promised a similar book for Britain.

The High Court's decision strikes a severe blow to a fundamental principle of justice. Namely, that people can pay for their crimes and once they have paid their debt to society, normally by enduring a period of imprisonment or paying a fine, they can move on. Basically, that they can be accepted back into society on the same terms as other citizens. In undermining this basic principle, this decision is very much in tune with the thinking in the Sex Offenders Bill, which is being debated in the British Parliament and which proposes a register of convicted and cautioned sex offenders. Anyone on the register will have severe limitations placed on their subsequent freedom of action, including a requirement that they notify the police of any change of address and a prohibition on attempts to gain employment involving access to children.

The thinking behind the Sex Offenders Bill is based on the widely promulgated myth that sex offenders are so likely to reoffend that the principle by which a punishment can be spent must give way to the protection of the vulnerable, i.e. children. There is absolutely no evidence that sex offenders are particularly likely to reoffend. In fact, even the Home Office draft report itself recognises that the reconviction rate for sex criminals is lower than for other types of crime.

Because there are no facts to support the recidivism myth it has to base itself on the 'hidden crime' argument, that a vast number of sex offenders reoffend but are not caught. This argument is always trotted out to support panics about crime, primarily because it is impossible to falsify. However when sex offenders were asked in interviews whether they had committed undetected crimes, the overwhelming majority replied that they had not (Abel et al, 1987). Interestingly, other research also reveals that sex offenders who had previous convictions were more likely to have been convicted of burglary or theft than offences against children (Canter and Kirby 1995).

The issue of child abuse arouses deep-seated fears. Sex offenders seem to be from another planet altogether. The sorry truth is that the few people who do commit sex offences are just ordinary people who err in a moment of depravity. Nothing is gained by pretending that 'paedophilia' is some kind of medical condition. On the contrary, by playing along with the idea that people cannot prevent themselves from abusing children, it becomes impossible to condemn the act when it does happen.

None of this would be of any account were it not the case that the government is using the paedophile issue to undermine a basic principle of justice: that people are punished for the crimes they do commit, not for the crimes they might commit in the future.

The importance of Canter and Kirby's research and more broadly the importance of upholding the principle of justice that a punishment can be spent is that it recognises that people can and do change, that we can learn from our mistakes. This is a fundamental part of what makes us human.

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