An ever harsher approach is doing more harm than good, but it is being copied around the world
IT IS an oft-told story, but it does not get any less horrific on repetition. Fifteen years ago, a paedophile enticed seven-year-old Megan Kanka into his home in New Jersey by offering to show her a puppy. He then raped her, killed her and dumped her body in a nearby park. The murderer, who had recently moved into the house across the street from his victim, had twice before been convicted of sexually assaulting a child. Yet Megan’s parents had no idea of this. Had they known he was a sex offender, they would have told their daughter to stay away from him.
In their grief, the parents started a petition, demanding that families should be told if a sexual predator moves nearby. Hundreds of thousands signed it. In no time at all, lawmakers in New Jersey granted their wish. And before long, “Megan’s laws” had spread to every American state.
America’s sex-offender laws are the strictest of any rich democracy. Convicted rapists and child-molesters are given long prison sentences. When released, they are put on sex-offender registries. In most states this means that their names, photographs and addresses are published online, so that fearful parents can check whether a child-molester lives nearby. Under the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, another law named after a murdered child, all states will soon be obliged to make their sex-offender registries public. Such rules are extremely popular. Most parents will support any law that promises to keep their children safe. Other countries are following America’s example, either importing Megan’s laws or increasing penalties: after two little girls were murdered by a school caretaker, Britain has imposed multiple conditions on who can visit schools.
Which makes it all the more important to ask whether America’s approach is the right one. In fact its sex-offender laws have grown self-defeatingly harsh (see article). They have been driven by a ratchet effect. Individual American politicians have great latitude to propose new laws. Stricter curbs on paedophiles win votes. And to sound severe, such curbs must be stronger than the laws in place, which in turn were proposed by politicians who wished to appear tough themselves. Few politicians dare to vote against such laws, because if they do, the attack ads practically write themselves.
A whole Wyoming of offenders
In all, 674,000 Americans are on sex-offender registries—more than the population of Vermont, North Dakota or Wyoming. The number keeps growing partly because in several states registration is for life and partly because registries are not confined to the sort of murderer who ensnared Megan Kanka. According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for people who visit prostitutes, 29 require it for consensual sex between young teenagers and 32 require it for indecent exposure. Some prosecutors are now stretching the definition of “distributing child pornography” to include teens who text half-naked photos of themselves to their friends.
How dangerous are the people on the registries? A state review of one sample in Georgia found that two-thirds of them posed little risk. For example, Janet Allison was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” because she let her 15-year-old daughter have sex with a boyfriend. The young couple later married. But Ms Allison will spend the rest of her life publicly branded as a sex offender.
Several other countries have sex-offender registries, but these are typically held by the police and are hard to view. In America it takes only seconds to find out about a sex offender: some states have a “click to print” icon on their websites so that concerned citizens can put up posters with the offender’s mugshot on trees near his home. Small wonder most sex offenders report being harassed. A few have been murdered. Many are fired because someone at work has Googled them.
Registration is often just the start. Sometimes sex offenders are barred from living near places where children congregate. In Georgia no sex offender may live or work within 1,000 feet (300 metres) of a school, church, park, skating rink or swimming pool. In Miami an exclusion zone of 2,500 feet has helped create a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge.
Make the punishment fit the crime
There are three main arguments for reform. First, it is unfair to impose harsh penalties for small offences. Perhaps a third of American teenagers have sex before they are legally allowed to, and a staggering number have shared revealing photographs with each other. This is unwise, but hardly a reason for the law to ruin their lives. Second, America’s sex laws often punish not only the offender, but also his family. If a man who once slept with his 15-year-old girlfriend is barred for ever from taking his own children to a playground, those children suffer.
Third, harsh laws often do little to protect the innocent. The police complain that having so many petty sex offenders on registries makes it hard to keep track of the truly dangerous ones. Cash that might be spent on treating sex offenders—which sometimes works—is spent on huge indiscriminate registries. Public registers drive serious offenders underground, which makes them harder to track and more likely to reoffend. And registers give parents a false sense of security: most sex offenders are never even reported, let alone convicted.
It would not be hard to redesign America’s sex laws. Instead of lumping all sex offenders together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.
In America it may take years to unpick this. However practical and just the case for reform, it must overcome political cowardice, the tabloid media and parents’ understandable fears. Other countries, though, have no excuse for committing the same error. Sensible sex laws are better than vengeful ones.
Esther Rantzen has admitted she blames herself for raising fears of paedophiles to such a degree that adults are now scared to help crying children.
The veteran broadcaster, who founded the counselling service ChildLine, warned that young people are now being harmed by the widespread suspicion that anyone who has contact with children could be a child abuser.
Her fears were confirmed by an experiment she helped conduct in a busy shopping centre, which found that 99 per cent of adults chose to walk on by rather than going to the assistance of two children who looked lost and distressed.
Even the handful who did stop admitted they were worried that people would assume they were trying to abduct the children.
This comes amid growing concern that in the wake of high-profile cases such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the Soham murders, all adults are now viewed as paedophiles unless they can prove themselves innocent.
There are now no men under 25 teaching in state-run nurseries, such is the fear of being branded a child molester, while from next year 11.3 million adults will have to have their backgrounds checked by the Independent Safeguarding Authority before they can work or volunteer with under-16s.
Even malicious allegations made against teachers or priests must now be kept on file until they retire, while council officers are questioning the motives of any lone adults who walk through a public park.
Rantzen asked of the results of the test, to be shown on TV tonight: "What does that say about our attitude to children now? Have we unwittingly put up barriers protecting ourselves, but harming them?
"It seems to me that many adults may now actually be putting children at risk, because we are so afraid someone will suspect us of having sinister motives if we help them.
"I blame myself for a lot of this. Thirty years ago most people didn't realise that abuse ever happened, so abusers just got away with it. But in 1986 we made a programme called Childwatch in which we pointed out that abuse is far more common than most people realise, but of course it's a secret crime, it happens mainly in children' homes, within the family.
"Now people are treating abuse as if it goes on behind every tree."
She added: "The tragedy is there are people who hurt children, and we must protect them against pain and abuse. But unless we hang on to our common sense the whole of child protection is going to suffer, so many of these rules and attitudes are designed to keep adults safe, to keep jobs safe, to keep organisations safe, to keep councils safe. Our priority should be to keep children safe."
In the experiment, to be shown on ITV1's Tonight programme, two child actors were left alone in a London shopping mall looking upset while hidden cameras were set up to observe how many people offered them assistance.
A total of 1,817 people walked past the children, a seven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, but only five did something to help.
Almost 500 people walked past the boy before one of them informed the shopping centre manager about his plight, and more than 100 ignored the girl before one of them stopped to ask if she was OK.
In addition, the five adults who did stop to help all admitted they had been worried their would be seen as suspicious.
Mark Williams Thomas, a child protection expert and former policeman, said: "It does concern me that no member of the public is even asking this child are they OK. They actually had to walk around them."