Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Paedophilia and the Criminal Justice System

Currently in the British media the argument is raging about "Sarah's Law", about the sentencing handed down to paedophiles by British judges and, as ever, about the rampant criminality that exists behind the forbidding facades of British prisons.

"Sarah's Law," dubbed such by cynical hacks in the News of the World, is named after Sarah Payne. She was a seven year old who disappeared in the summer of 2000. Her body was discovered some weeks after her disappearance. The occasion was marked by a media frenzy - something the tabloid media seem to embark on every other summer with regard to cases such as these. The law was initially demanded by 'News of the Screws' hacks and it would give parents of young children access to the Sex Offenders Register. This register contains a list of the names and locations of every citizen convicted of a sex offence, ranging from indecent exposure to rape and child abuse.

The timing for such opportunistic right wingers couldn't be better. Front and centre is the debate over Craig Sweeney and the sentence passed upon his conviction for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a three year old girl. Sweeney was awarded a life sentence, with a minimum serving time of five years and 108 days. Subsequent media coverage led the Home Secretary, John Reid, to demand that the Attorney General allow an appeal to increase the minimum sentence. The Attorney General has, naturally, refused.

My line of inquiry runs as follows. Okay, we know politicians are parasitic opportunists who will jump on any bandwagon that might boost their popularity or that of their government. Clearly this is why Dr Reid decided to attack the position of the Attorney General. The question must be asked of Reid, what good would keeping this character in prison do?

Having decided to engage in a sexual assault upon a defenceless child of three, we can hardly imagine that Sweeney will play Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and go through the remainder of his life haunted by the incident until he is cleansed of his guilt by the love of a woman and by serving his time. Moreover, our prisons are, one might suspect this is redundant, full of criminals!

This opinion has recently been reinforced by the publication of the review of Risley prison. The review concludes that gangs are operating with impunity, that contraband substances are easily obtainable - including mobile phones! - and that 5,000 security 'instances' are just the tip of the iceberg. This is one prison! Even if we are to assume that it is the worst, and there is no evidence to suggest that, the British prison system is clearly not working. Over 1% of the population are currently in prison. To what end?

Relating this to paedophilia, certainly, for the duration of their incarceration that particular paedophile cannot reoffend; yet that doesn't deal with the crux of the matter. New paedophiles are constantly emerging; this is something with which our society has to deal. Fifty years ago, this country threw homosexuals into prison - but that did not prevent the emergence of homosexuality as a widely accepted sexual preference. The differences between the two are obvious, the main one being that homosexuality involves a choice by a person who, one expects, feels capable of deciding for him or herself. Paedophilia is an adult forcing himself on a minor with horrendous repercussions for the minor, if not death. The point is that prison is not going to make this go away.

A small fraction (between 2 and 10 %) of so-called paedophiles are estimated to have a sexual reason for their crime. The remainder are opportunistic or 'regressed' offenders who acted out of the same concatenation of reasons which cause people to shoot up their school or work place in the United States or to, as I read today, kill four members of their extended family with a club, here in the UK. Such stresses are a factor in every day life and can be treated, to render a person no danger to society. It's by no means that simple of course - and a holding area is a necessity while medical staff can ascertain that treatment is effective, but a prison, with all the goings-on already mentioned, is hardly the correct environment for people with a tenuous grip on themselves who are trying to overcome the reasons for their regressed offence.

As for the remaining 2-10 %, this is the 21st Century. If we've learned nothing else from our past, particularly in Ireland, this last bastion of Catholic repression, can we not agree that those things considered sexually deviant only become so much more harmful when forced underground by society? Child pornography and child prostitution are great blights on our civilization - but there are solutions which don't involve the traditional answer of the right (i.e. more policemen and harsher laws). The first step must be the silencing of the sensationalist media, with its bloodthirst.

With that step we have the chance for a rational debate between the majority who want to see their children protected and a tiny minority who are born with paedophilic sexual preferences - which, as with homosexuality, is not classed a mental illness by the World Health Organization. No one disputes that children should not be pawned by their parents out of socio-economic needs but neither does anyone dispute that for as long as there is a market for child pornography and child prostitution, there will be those who will do so. Yet we can eliminate child pornography entirely; we have computers capable of generating lifelike pictures and the sooner society accepts that some people are born paedophilic, the sooner we'll see sexual repression decrease - and with that will decrease the incidences of assault by these people.

Of course the right wing will positively scream that it's a slippery slope and that those who are permitted to use such pornography will gradually want to experience their sexual fantasies for real, through child prostitution. Well, first of all, not everyone who uses normal pornography goes to a prostitute, why should it be different for those with paedophiliac preferences? Second of all, if society is more accepting of this problem there would be medical programmes widely available to counsel those afflicted by this sexual preference, which, as I've already stated, is a threat to children and their physical and mental health.

In conclusion, I do not think it displays a correct awareness of the subject to declare that one is 'against' paedophilia, in the same way that one can hardly be 'against' homosexuality. Such preferences are facts of life and how we deal with them is the key. I am not convinced that 25 years in prison will serve any purpose in the long run.

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