Article: Publish Sex Offenders Register

The sex offenders register should be made public
The Independent, 16 January 2006
By Heather Brooke

After a week of sustained pressure, ministers have finally admitted that politicians may not be the best authority for deciding inclusion on the List 99 register of those banned from working in education. They concede that an outside body should make such decisions. I have just the thing and it won’t cost a penny. The outside body is already in existence – it is the general public.

Revelations that Ruth Kelly’s department cleared the Norfolk PE teacher Paul Reeve and William Gibson, 59, to work as teachers even though they were on the sex offender registry has once again laid bare the inadequacies of criminal records checks. What is most frightening is that Ms Kelly cannot provide an account of how many known sex offenders are working in schools. This is because the system, like so much of current policy, is chaotic, arbitrary and controlled by the patronage of politicians.

Firstly, there is the chaos of the register itself. Individual police forces maintain and feed information into the main sex offenders’ registry, while List 99 is a blacklist, drawn up by politicians at the Department for Education and Skills. Ms Kelly revealed last week that there are currently seven such blacklists barring people from working with children and vulnerable adults. Surely these lists would be more effective (both in terms of cost and operational effectiveness) if they were unified. If the lists were public then such needless duplication and cost-wasting would have been exposed years ago.

Keeping the lists secret from the public makes them less effective in other ways. The public are prevented from having a rational and informed discussion on the structure and composition of the sex offender register because we have no way of knowing who is on the list or why. Secrecy has created a register that has no consistency and is open to abuse by those who control the list, namely the police and politicians.

Reeve was put on the sex offender register after police cautioned him for accessing child pornography over the Internet. Gibson had a relationship with a 15-year-old pupil in 1980 and as a result was convicted of indecent assault of a minor. Many people, such as Reeves, are on the list even though they have not been charged or found guilty of any crime. Should this be so? It’s true that sexual crimes are difficult to prosecute, evidenced by the fact that Soham murderer Ian Huntley did not have criminal convictions although police were aware he was a danger to young girls. But this points out the desperate need to reform the criminal justice system in favour of the victims of sexual crime, not an opportunity to blacklist people who are innocent in law. Currently, we have no idea what sort of information leads to being placed on the sex offender register.

In the United States, sex offender registers have been public for almost a decade and transparency has ensured a wide and informed debate about the dangers sex offenders pose to society and the rights and wrongs of publishing their details. While British politicians struggle over how to create a coherent list with gradations of risk, the Americans already have a number of systems in place handling widespread publication. In my former home state of Washington, the list is divided into three categories of sex offenders from 1 (those posing the least threat) to 3 (high risk). Each level places varying requirements on the offenders. The lowest risk offenders are not published on the internet, while files on category 2 and 3 offenders are published complete with photograph, name, list of offences, address and maps showing proximity to schools. The Parents For Megan’s Law website (http://www.parentsformeganslaw.com) provides links to each state register.

In most US states, inclusion on the registry is done so only after criminal conviction. Police suspicions are not enough to place someone on the list. States must show a ‘rational basis’ for who is included, otherwise the law falls foul of Constitutional protections on civil liberties. Various legal cases have upheld the public registers and confirmed that the public’s right to know about potential dangers in their community outweighs any inconvenience imposed on the registrants.

Of course, no discussion about publishing a sex offender registry is complete without cries that it will lead to vigilantism. The News of the World’s campaign in 2000 is often cited for prompting an attack on a paediatrician. Yet people are attacked every day and the motivations behind such attacks are numerous. Is it sensible to put innocent people in danger’s way just because of the irrational, and criminal behaviour, of a miniscule minority? Because let’s not forget that assault and harassment are already crimes, and the police would do well to concentrate on prosecuting such crimes, rather than censoring information to the vast bulk of law-abiding people.

In the USA, it is illegal to use information from the sex offender databases to commit a crime or harass an offender or his family. In California if that crime is a misdemeanour, fines are $10,000-$50,000; and if a felony, a five-year prison term is added to any other punishment. Such harsh penalties and efficient enforcement mean that vigilantism is rare. A 1996 survey in Washington state found just 33 incidents of harassment since the sex offender law went into effect in 1990.

Vigilantism is the product not of open records but a breakdown in trust between the public and the criminal justice system. That is why we see vigilantism in countries where the rule of law has broken down and people feel the need to take matters into their own hands. Cases of vigilantism in Britain are rare despite the media coverage, and rather than closing the system even more, the way to solve this problem is to make the courts and court records more transparent so the people can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears exactly how justice is being done. Only then will we feel confident that the system is working properly and justly.

In the end it comes down to trust. Do we trust the state or ourselves with this information? It is unreasonable to expect the police to monitor and keep tabs on all suspicious people. We, the people, are much better placed to protect our own children.

This is the full version of the article in Monday’s Independent.

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16 Responses to “Article: Publish Sex Offenders Register”

  1. Stephen C. says:

    My hunch is that the direction of trust is going the wrong way in this case. Like the panopticon, where a possibly absent and invisible jailer casts his penetrating gaze upon an entire prison, so the state with its cameras and record-keeping and grid-like system of categorization for the entire population, penetrates the body of the people with its all-knowing eye. Is the solution to recruit the people in self-observation, casting themselves into an automatic incarceration where knowledge/power prevails without agency, or is it to turn the gaze back upon the state, mining the concentration of power/knowledge in order to effect a more plural, open and democratic redistribution? I suspect that your proposal entails the former.

    And just on the subject of harm to children, I’m sure you will also wonder why nary a murmur is heard in response to the brutal killing of six children last Friday by the CIA in Damadola, Pakistan.

  2. I’d like to believe that sex offenders, and any other person guilty of having committed a crime, can change their ways. They should at least be offered the chance without the public knowing about their past. However, someone who has a record of child molestation should be barred from working with children. It should be the government’s responsibility to take care of that. Sadly, as proven, the government can not be trusted. Therefore, it must be seen as the public’s right to know if their children’s teachers have a criminal record.

  3. Kay Tie says:

    Paul Reeve didn’t accept a caution for downloading child pornography. He accepted a caution for “inciting” the downloading of child pornography: he was found to have paid for access to a web site that contained child pornography. The police found no child pornography on his computer. Did he access a general pornography site that also included child porn? Did he accept a caution, even though innocent, because he wanted to avoid bad publicity?

    The police are under no obligation to indicate your rights when it comes to the consequences of a caution. On the contrary, the police frequently bully and lie to get a suspect to accept a caution in order to improve “clear up” rates. Combine this with the devastating results of accepting a caution that results in placement on the sexual offenders register and you have serious injustice.

  4. a police sex off manager says:

    a few small points…
    1. a Police Caution IS a conviction… it is placed on the Police National Computer as a conviction. To receive one you must have had no previous like history and freely admit the offence. If you do not i.e. you havent done it… then you may be charged (decision by Crown Prosecution service not Police…). you will then get your day in court…
    2. informed? rational? debate? about sex offenders? i dont think so- ask the doctor who received huge amounts of hate mail etc because he was listed in the phone book as a paediatrician!
    3. bully/lie? i dont think so- noone could convince me to accept a sex offence caution when i did not do the offence…

  5. Desmond Alphonse says:

    I am considering preparing a dissertation related to publication of the sex offenders register for my Masters in Criminal Litigation at the Inns of Court School of Law and would appreciate your further insight on the topic.

  6. mapp visor says:

    i would think that the 50-75 high ranking police officers in uk alone who have been charged with child sex offences would not like to have their names published.

  7. D'Arcy Gray says:

    What is often forgotton are the high numbers of sex offenders with children. As somebody who works closely with sex offenders it is not unknown for ex-offenders to address the issues of their crime. Many go on to return to families and new lives. Are not THEIR children then at risk ? Whether from physical assault, school-yard bullying or social exclusion. If the law permits public access to the sex offenders register then it should be right to abondon all rehabilitation and training programs and admit their uselessness. Because why should a sex offender make any effort to rehabilitation when a life of misery, transience, and loneliness will await him / her anyway.

  8. Untrusting Cynic says:

    If a Court states that someone should go on the Sex Offenders’ Register, this is public information – along with the sentence. I don’t understand why it all becomes so very secret as soon as the court case is over. Even a Judge authorising access to this information does not get easy co-operation or disclosure from either the police or the courts (personal experience). But if you pay your credit card bill a few days late one month, this information is easily accessible to many groups of people often with unforeseen implications.

    Clearly money is more important than people to those that make the laws. Give sex offenders a chance to reform? Another sick joke by those with no experience of being on the receiving end. Why not ask the victims and their families what they want? There is more support for the offender than for the victims.

  9. heather says:

    I am in America right now where the lists of serious sex offenders are public record. There are serious penalities for misusing this information, and the system works well. The American public demands access to this information – and gets it. I think this speaks volumes about how little respect the British public get from their elected officials. The UK public obviously want to know who is on the sex offender list, especially parents with children. But politicians have decided we can’t be trusted. I would feel happier if they ensured proper enforcement of existing laws (or increased the penality for misusing information on the sex offender lists) rather then censoring whole tracts of information purely because they think someone might misuse it.

    The point I was making in the article is that in the current UK criminal justice system the balance is completely skewed against the good of society. Why should the public be given less rights to protection than a convicted sex offender?

    Leaving aside these philosophical points, purely on a logical basis the British system makes no sense. As the previous poster stated, these are records handed down in open court. At what point do they become secret? Either courts are open or they are not. If they are open, then their proceedings should be a public record.

  10. Shocked says:

    I am shocked at the shear lack of understanding people have as to what the sex offenders register actually is, and how people are able to so easily cast judgement without knowing the facts.

    I agree that ‘some’ information about CHILD sex offenders, paedophiles and those who download child pornography should be made available to the public, in order to protect the most vulnerable in society.

    However, of the 12,000 or however many it is that makes up the register, some lesser offenders have been caught in a net that groups together people who have been convicted of varying degrees of ‘sexual’ offence. Some might say that’s OK, since a sexual offence is after all a sexual offence, but when you consider that a group of men out on a stag do say, having had a bit too much to drink flash themselves at a passing hen party, are then put on the sex offenders register because one of the women made a complaint – would it be right to make his details (name, address, picture) publicly available to everyone, when he had a moment of indiscretion, did not intentionally cause harm or has never been convicted of ANY offence previously?

    Or consider the teacher who dated his 15 year old pupil, convicted of a sex offence, but then later went on to marry the same girl and start a normal healthy family.

    There are a number of reported cases where a unsubstantiated allegation has resulted in the accused being placed on the sex offenders register, because after all ‘why would a 16 year old lie?’ Well, I can take you to many housing estates in my city where you will find many 16 year olds, 8 year olds, 5 year olds even, who are all capable of exaggerating the truth. Part and parcel of this is because we always feel sorry for the victim without questioning their story, and once they know we are ‘hooked in’ it has been proved by psychologist that they often feel comforted by the attention and will gladly answer the non-intentional leading questions asked by police with anything that will maintain that attention or bond.

    I quite agree that at times the offender seems to be treated better than the victim and often gets the better support, and I am not for one second advocating that.

    It would make more sense to me if we had a more appropriately defined set of lists, each one centrally administered and not hidden away from our law enforcers, but which allowed us to know who was out there that posed a threat to our children, whilst protecting the rehabilitation rights of those that do not.

  11. heather says:

    I agree that the lists should be clearly defined. But my point is that the existing inconsitencies and incompetence surrounding the lists is a direct result of their secrecy.

    Surely it would be better to have an open societal debate about what warrants inclusion on the sex offenders register. I do not think it is right that someone can be put on the list simply on the say so of a police officer or politician. Yet that can, and does, happen now. Often people are not even aware they are on the list because the lists are secret.

    It’s naive to expect the police to keep track of all the people on the list. They can’t. And I do not see why those with the most to lose (eg parents) should be refused access to what, in many cases, is public information – the convictions were handed down in open court.

  12. vinny says:

    i think its a good idea that could easily go bad, too many “vigilantes” willing to have a go many without checking they have the right person does any one remember the farcical that happened in Portsmouth UK where so called vigilantes attacked a paediatrician because they thought it was a fancy name for a peadophile yes this is true it did happen!!!! this goes to show the IQ of the mob doesnt it, and this is not an isolated case. Although i do think that schools should be made to warn perants of any peadohiles listed on the sex offenders list living close to the school.

  13. Shelley says:

    No one has discussed how the families of registered sex offenders feel. As the soon to be wife of a falsely accused sex offender (no, that is not an oxymoron), I am very scared. Do I need to carry mace to protect myself against vigilantees? Should I get a gun to protect myself? That isn’t an option I want to even consider.

    Don’t tell me they don’t exist; the newspapers are full of examples of RSOs and their families being harmed. I don’t find the reassurances that examples of vigilantism against sex offenders to be low as all that reassuring. If YOU had to live with the chance of being killed, threatened or harmed by a vigilante, YOU wouldn’t be all that cavalier. After all, I take precautions for everything else; THIS is beyond my control.

  14. vaci says:

    So you’re prepared to believe whatever you read in tabloid newspapers, but not prepared to believe actual, measurable facts about vigilatism? This illustrates the problem pretty effectively – that members of the general public are incapable of rational risk assessment!

  15. lisa says:

    I do not believe in any way that we should publish the register and this is as the daughter of someone who was convicted, sent prison and served a full sentence for never admitting the crimes.
    If you publish it then you will get a whole load of idiots who do not explore what the person is registered for.
    If you put child party into a search engine to look for birthday party sites and click the wrong link you could get a child porn site up. A few months down the line you are arrested cause the police have links to that site, youu may of clicked and then clicked straight off, you could still be charged with child porn offences and end up on the list… What happens then? If it is going to be made public knowledge then it needs to being revised.

  16. Zarathustra says:

    Hmmm, it’s the lack of gradation which inclines me to think publication at this time would be an unhealthy thing. What of the lovers *ack I hate that word* where both wholly consent but one is below age of consent? think about the unfortunate men who are on the register for having sex with a 17 year-old before the age was reduced to 16. They are on the register and staying on it, that can’t be right. I know of another example where one short note and how it made the recipient feel got one man put on the register, can he really be catergorised *some might say demonised* in the same bracket as say a modern day Ian Brady? After all the note was only five words long! BTW on this point I’m deadly serious, five word note got a man put on the register. And now for the daddy of them all, the offenders the register misses. Oh dear, I for one know of three men who should be on the register for serious sexual child abuse. But no one is interested as it was “so long ago” and what of their accomplisis? I mean the wives/girlfriends colluded, shouldn’t that be grounds for inclusion ie you did nothing while a child was assaulted? Or worse in the cases I speak of you took part by inaction where one might reasonably have expected objection to the criminals behaviour. Now you know why I hate the term love, they apparently “loved” the perpetrators so they never spoke up, shame about the kids they were supposed to love.

    We can not get a grip on gradation, we are reluctant to contemplate abuse in the utterly disgusting mental state it induces so we can never catergorise people effectively *gradation* instead they are all one and the same. Hmmm given the above alluded to examples hardly adequate to have a register if it’s so non-discriminating. Indeed why have a list and then keep it private? Erm are the powers that be more reliable than us mere members of the public? What if someone from the powers that be was on the list, ah who’d control that? So I put it that the best way forward is for the ‘public’ to be brought to face it’s demons and deal with it maturely. As others have said one lives under laws which would in normal circumstance prosecute vigilantes and rightly so, hence why the secrecy, I think it’s been established by now *reading between the lines of discussion* that the public need to confront their demons if one of them is that normal law abiding people are willing to commite crime in the guise of vigilantism then we need to face up to the fact the bloke next to us on the bus to work may be a raving lunatic waiting to explode. The presumption here is that we all need protection from ourselves, but i put it if we are potentially all flawed then how can some have secret lists, are they in some way above moral reproach?

    Ah well I’m off.