Convicted child abusers are much less dangerous than the British public—and the government—believe
In 2003, Paul Reeve was found to have done something illegal. Although he was not convicted of any crime, he accepted a caution from the police. He was banned from certain jobs. Then a government department reviewed Mr Reeve's case and lifted the ban. He took a job in Norwich, but quickly resigned after the police objected. It may not sound like the sort of scandal that would keep the media busy for a week and threaten the career of a government minister. But since Mr Reeve's crime involved child pornography, and his job was teaching physical education in a school, the level of panic—and the potential fallout—is almost without limit.
Memories of an earlier enormity are one reason for the hysteria. In 2002, two Cambridgeshire girls were murdered by Ian Huntley, a school caretaker. The crime was egregious enough, but it turned out that Mr Huntley had previously been investigated for rape, underage sex, indecent assault and burglary. A public inquiry revealed police incompetence and sloppy record-keeping. Such a person, it was promised, would never again be allowed to work in a school.
As the case of Mr Reeve demonstrates, though, a man who has been tarred with the brush of paedophilia is not prevented from working with children forever. A hurried review by the education department found 56 cases where child sex offenders were cleared to teach. One involved Keith Hudson, a science teacher who was convicted of possessing indecent images of boys. Mr Hudson was placed on List 99, which bars dubious characters from teaching jobs. But the education department allowed him to work in girls' schools.
Ruth Kelly, the much-barracked education secretary (see article), now says ministers should no longer decide such cases. She also promises to simplify the vetting system by creating a single, all-encompassing list. At present, there are no fewer than seven ways of checking someone's credentials.
The British authorities place a good deal of faith in the power of lists to protect children. They have been inspired by America, where information about more than half a million sex offenders is available not just to the police but also to the public. Britain has not yet reached the point of barring sex offenders from living near schools or (as in Florida) from taking refuge in hurricane shelters. But it is easier to get on to a British list. A caution or, in some cases, the mere suspicion of child abuse may be enough.
Advocates of keeping lists and restricting employment point out that the sexual abuse of children is a horrendous crime which can lead to a lifetime of anguish. But the main justification is not the awfulness of the offence but the supposedly incorrigible character of the offender. “The nature of sexual attraction to children is that it is often lifelong and compulsive,” explained Lady Scotland, a Home Office minister, in 2004. Such claims have been repeated so often that they have acquired the ring of truth. They are mostly false.
Men convicted of sex offences involving children are not, in fact, all that likely to commit further crimes. Of those released in 2002, 17% were in trouble again within two years. That may sound appalling, but compared with other ex-cons, sex offenders were paragons of virtue. The re-conviction rate for all criminals was 60% (see chart). Most incorrigible were men who stole from vehicles, 85% of whom had been re-convicted within the same period.
It is also likely that most of the child sex offenders who got into trouble after their release were collared for a different (and less appalling) crime. A study by America's Department of Justice found that, while 39% of child molesters were arrested again within three years of release, just 3% were suspected of another sex crime against a child.
Some convicted child molesters will have returned to their old ways and not been caught, of course. Others will have lapsed later, so their crimes will not show up in the statistics. But the same is true of other criminals. And the police presumably keep closer tabs on sex offenders than on, say, burglars—otherwise, what is the point of all those lists?
Increased scrutiny may be one reason why child abusers are so much more likely than other criminals to go straight after their release. But it turns out that they often behaved themselves even before the sex offenders' register came into being in 1997. A Home Office study of men released in 1987 found that sex offenders were re-convicted at about half the average rate.
Contrary to the popular view, sex offenders can be treated. Don Grubin, a Newcastle psychiatrist, says that anti-depressant drugs and therapy seem to reduce the chance that a convict will offend again. And the mere fact of conviction may be enough to change minds. Unlike burglars and armed robbers, child abusers often suffer from the delusion that what they do is acceptable. A spell in prison, where they have to be protected from other inmates, will swiftly disabuse them of that notion.
Colin Pritchard, a psychiatrist who has studied paedophiles, says they are a diverse bunch. Most are “pathetic nuisances” who grope children but commit no other crimes. They respond well to treatment and are unlikely to re-offend. A smaller but much more dangerous group consists of men who, like Mr Huntley, are both abusive and violent. They are harder to treat, and more likely to re-offend—so much so that Mr Pritchard believes they should not necessarily be let out of prison.
Ms Kelly announced on January 19th new laws banning for life all teachers with child sex cautions as well as convictions, unless they appeal successfully. Given the low threat posed by many such people, this may be unnecessary. It would be better to focus on a small number of violent offenders. It might also be wise to worry less about teachers and more about threats closer to home. Several studies have shown that between two-thirds and three-quarters of abused children suffer at the hands of relatives or family friends.
Such a change in policy would be desirable, that is, if the intention were truly to protect children. The evidence of the past week suggests there may be more enthusiasm for heaping misery upon sex offenders and education secretaries.
Suplemento Temático: Formación y Seguridad