Thursday, June 29, 2006

Is Megan's Law a vigilantes' charter? - Law - Times Online

The answer to the question in the headline is - of course - in the text of the story.

This is a difficult issue for a libertarian. I don't believe the State has the right - generally - to conceal information from the public. It exists to serve the public and whatever its servants know, they know on the public's behalf. However, the State also has a duty to protect the privacy of private individuals. You would not want your tax return published online as "public information", would you?

Here, I think the press is focussing on the wrong issue. The question is not "would you want to know if a sex offender was living near your children?". Knowledge is power and the obvious answer is "yes". There is also an argument that the "Megan's Law" approach is only achieving, in a modern mobile society, what used to occur naturally when people lived in more stable communities. The local paedophiles were known and children were warned against them by families and neighbours. Their proclivities were to some extent controlled by the knowledge that the community was watching them and, yes, might take matters into its own hands if children were harmed. Why should this not happen now?

A more difficult question is whether, having paid his debt to society by doing jail time, someone who committed an offence should still be regarded as an "offender". If a convicted, time-served, paedophile is so dangerous that his neighbours need to know his history, then he should not have been released. If he is safe enough to be released, then his privacy can safely be respected so as to maximise his chances of rehabilitation.

The real issue is the correct sentencing and/or treatment of paedophiles, which is itself a difficult issue.

We are all (or most of us outside Opus Dei, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Nigerian Anglicans) reconciled to the idea that a homosexual is no more "to blame" for his sexual orientation than a heterosexual. He is what he is and must be able to live his life on the same terms as anyone else - i.e. free to live as he chooses, provided his choices do no harm to others.

A paedophile has no more choice in his sexual orientation than a homosexual. The problem is that living his sexual life as he chooses cannot be done without harm, as he desires children too young to make sexual choices. In a sense though, criminal punishment is as absurd for him as it always was for homosexuals. [I can already hear my more conventionally right-wing readers going ballistic at this point].

A paedophile who cannot contain his sexual urges is in need of treatment. The closure of secure psychiatric hospitals under the guise of "care in the community" has in practice filled our jails with men and women who would previously have been their inmates. I suspect that many paedophiles fall into the same category. How much more humane would it be for a paedophile with uncontrollable urges to be "sectioned" or to admit himself for treatment, than to leave him to cope alone, to the endangerment of the children around him.

I also question whether the current witch-hunt about "child pornography" is entirely constructive. Of course anything which involves harming children in the making of it should be a crime. But Japanese style manga cartoons, or realistic CGI imagery - however disgusting it might seem to non-paedophiles - should probably be available to help them deal with their sexuality in a way that does not harm children.

This is a subject it would be much easier not to write about. Anything one does write can be misinterpreted. I am not sure, however, that the tone of the present debate is likely to lead to our children being safer. Surely that - not the expression of our revulsion - is the real issue?

Is Megan's Law a vigilantes' charter? - Law - Times Online


Anonymous said...

You omit to discuss the issue of gradations.

Not everyone on the register is someone who has actually sexually assaulted a child. Recall that Pete Townshend is now on the register (I think). Many men accused of a minor offence might choose to go on the register rather than go through the courts if this choice was made to them. This opens the possibility that some people on the register are likely to be innocent.

Against this, I go along with your anecdotal view of how society dealt with the subject in days gone by. The community kept a watch on the "dirty old man" and that did the job. Today by contrast, communities have broken down and such a solution seems to be beyond reach. But this change has also impacted the paedophile who is now able to socialise with others like himself. In the "old days" one lonely "dirty old man" would be an island in a sea of disapproval - not any more. It isn't a stretch to assume that being in contact with others who share this sexual desire will tend to encourage them all.

By extension I would not assume as quickly as you have that the presence of pornography acts to satiate such a desire - in the company of people who do not disapprove, it may act as a stimulant.

John East said...

I take a rather simplistic view.

As things are now, innocent children are at risk. As things should be under a Megan's law regime, adults, most of whom would be paedophiles and perverts not in control of their urges, would be at risk instead. (From vigilantes.)

This redistribution of risk is surely to be preferred. Society could then debate measures to protect peadophiles at its leisure. Sure there would be some failures and the occassional paedophile will be attacked and even murdered, but if they can't live with the consequencies of their actions, then they shouldn't commit the crimes.

Tom Paine said...

John East, if the problem were quite as binary as that, I would agree. But the children will be at risk anyway. There is no perfect world.

Some of the people punished by vigilantes would be innocent - remember the paediatrician targetted by the mob after the News of the World started the first British "Megan's Law" scare? Others would be paedophiles who have, after punishment or treatment, brought their urges under control.

As I made clear in my post, I think the issue here is striking a fair balance between the right to know and the right to privacy. The fact that the subject matter is so emotive (we are all programmed by nature to protect little children, and those who would harm them are abhorrent to us) makes it difficult to be rational.

Usually, the more difficult it is to be rational, the more important it is to try.

John East said...

Tom, Just because I take a simplistic view does not mean I see it as a simplistic problem. I'm not claiming that children would be removed from risk, just that some of the risk would be transferred to the convicted criminals.

I have a friend, a schizophrenic in his 50’s who lives alone on a housing estate. He is already perceived by his neighbours as “not one of us”, and has been singled out by some of the locals for bullying in the past. In the event of a paedophile incident it’s the many thousands of innocent people like him who currently come in for unwarranted attention. A Megan’s law would at least put these people out of the frame.

I’ve nothing against a right to privacy, but only in cases where the loss of privacy harms the individual concerned with no resulting benefit to society. I've never understood why convicts have a right to keep their history private, particularly peadophiles who many consider to be one of the most difficult criminal groups to rehabilitate. Furthermore, if they haven’t changed their names, the original press reports of their convictions have already put the details into the public domain anyway.
Where we might be on more common ground is being anti-vigilante, and I agree tackling this is difficult, but as this is the basis of the argument against a Megan's law, this is where I would look for the solution.

John East said...

Did you get my post to this thread on 02/07/06?

Tom Paine said...

As you see John, I did. Sorry. For some reason I didn't get the usual Blogger email notifying me of a comment to moderate.