Convicted child abusers are much less dangerous than the British public and the government believe

The end of innocence

Excerpt from The Economist
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.

Jan 19th 2006

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