The news that Jersey is finally going to have a sex offenders register is a welcome one. However, on listening to Ian Le Marquand on BBC Radio Jersey, he did mention that this would be very restricted in terms of access. While I can understand the reason behind this, in the United States, and lately in the United Kingdom, disclosure is in fact becoming more open, rather than less so, and I wonder if Jersey should keep a sharper eye on developments in the United Kingdom, so that it would be easier to add the necessary provisions to move that way if required.
The general position on registers and their access is well summarised in Wikipedia:
In some localities, the lists of sex offenders are made available to the public: for example, through the newspapers, community notification, or the Internet. However, in other localities, the complete lists are not available to the general public but are known to the police. In the United States offenders are often classified in three categories: Level I offenders, who are at low risk to reoffend; Level II offenders, who are at moderate risk to reoffend; and Level III offenders, who are at high risk to reoffend. Information is usually accessible related to that risk (information being more accessible to the public for higher risk offenders). There are penalties for failing to register as required.(1)
An example of this can be seen in the Californian web site, although this does now apply to all States in the USA. It has a searchable register, but notes that:
Not every registered sex offender will appear on this Internet web site. As explained on the Summary of the Law page, approximately 25% of registered sex offenders are excluded from public disclosure by law. Whether public disclosure is permitted is based on the type of sex crime for which the person is required to register.(2)
The reason for this kind of disclosure - and why it is called "Megan's Law" is not arbitrary. It was to redress significant defects in the existing law, defects which resulted in a child being killed. So the name is bound up in the history of the law, and aimed not at some kind of vigilante brigade, but rather to avoid a terrible crime from being repeated - note the last sentence in the following description especially:
For more than 50 years, California has required sex offenders to register with their local law enforcement agencies. However, information on the whereabouts of these sex offenders was not available to the public until the implementation of the Child Molester Identification Line in July 1995. The information available was further expanded by California's Megan's Law in 1996 (Chapter 908, Stats. of 1996). California's Megan's Law provides the public with certain information on the whereabouts of sex offenders so that members of our local communities may protect themselves and their children. Megan's Law is named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who had moved across the street from the family without their knowledge. In the wake of the tragedy, the Kankas sought to have local communities warned about sex offenders in the area. All states now have a form of Megan's Law. The law is not intended to punish the offender and specifically prohibits using the information to harass or commit any crime against an offender. (3)
What happened in Britain has followed a more restrained path than the United States, but pressure to change the law has come from the same cause, namely defects in the existing law. The changes to British law are more circumspect, but aim to ensure than any individual - such as a step-parent - who has unsupervised access of someone's children can be checked, which seems an eminently prudent step to take, and again was prompted by a weakness in the current disclosures available:
In the mid-1990s, Megan's Law was introduced in the US after the murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanko by a sex offender who had moved in across the street. That law gives parents access to information on paedophiles living in their community. In Britain, there has been a campaign for equivalent legislation, dubbed 'Sarah's Law' by proponents after another young victim, Sarah Payne. But now the government has rejected those demands, ruling out any kind of public access to the sex offenders' register. Instead, only parents and guardians will be able to request information on specific individuals who may have unsupervised access to their children, such as new partners joining a single parent household. The decision will come as a disappointment to Sarah's parents, Sara and Michael, and to the News of the World newspaper which has championed their call for a change in the law. When eight-year-old Sarah was killed in 2000 there was widespread public grief. But that sentiment turned to outrage when it emerged that the culprit was a known paedophile - Roy Whiting. He had been jailed in 1995 for kidnapping and indecently assaulting a nine-year-old girl and placed on the sex offenders' register. arrangements - which were designed to involve police, probation, charities and other bodies to closely monitor dangerous offenders. (4)
The existing law - the Mappa system - was supposed to prevent problems but after a three year old girl was kidnapped and sexually abused, it prompted a review of the system, as it was seen to be insufficient to provide preventative warnings to the right people, in this case, the girls mother:
The law also created Mappa - multi-agency public protection arrangements - which were designed to involve police, probation, charities and other bodies to closely monitor dangerous offenders. In January 2006, Sweeney kidnapped and sexually abused a three year-old-girl, despite theoretically being subject to Mappa. His victim's mother said if Sarah's Law had allowed her to know of his past, he would never have been allowed to go near her daughter. Soon after, pressure on the government increased again when the News of the World revealed that 60 paedophiles had been housed, with official approval, at sites near schools. Home Secretary John Reid then made the surprise announcement that the Home Office would consider Megan's Law after all and would send a minister to the US to see it in operation. Gerry Sutcliffe travelled to New Jersey and met with Megan's parents, but later said it might not be possible to transpose the legislation to the UK because of different "structures". Then, in November last year, the newly created Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre took the unprecedented step of naming missing paedophiles on its website. (4)
The position this year - as of March 2009 - and reported in the Guardian - is that much more information will be forthcoming in terms of disclosure to parents. The pilot scheme has not led to vigilante action, and has been extended for a further period, with a strong possibility that it may be rolled out nationwide.
Trials giving parents access to information about convicted paedophiles will be extended from today, the Home Office said. The pilot schemes, set up in response to demands for a "Sarah's Law", have been running since September in four police forces. They allow parents, guardians and carers to ask police whether people who have access to their child have committed child sexual offences. Officers then have the option to reveal the information or take further action if they believe children may be at risk. Some public protection experts and children's charities, including the NSPCC, have questioned the value of the projects, which some fear may prompt vigilante actions. The NSPCC warned that such a law could create a false sense of security as not all paedophiles are on the sex offenders register. Police involved in the trials today insisted they had not prompted any vigilante action. The forces in the trials have so far made 10 disclosures after requests for information, the Home Office said today. The forces in Warwickshire, Cleveland, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire have dealt with 153 inquiries about the scheme, and 79 applications for information. So far, Warwickshire has been the only force in which the scheme has been running across its entire area but the three smaller pilots will be expanded from today to cover the whole of Cleveland, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, called the early results "extremely encouraging" and said a decision on whether the pilots will be rolled out nationwide will be made at the end of the year. "Protecting children and families from sex offenders is one of my top priorities and the UK has one of the most robust systems of managing sex offenders in the world," she said. "Today's results are extremely encouraging - this pilot has provided crucial protection for children who might otherwise be at risk. "The development of this scheme in consultation with Sara Payne, the police and children's charities has been a major step forward in our ability to protect children from sex offenders but also to empower parents and guardians to understand how to best protect their children." Keith Bristow, the chief constable of Warwickshire police, said extending the pilots had successfully raised public awareness of child protection issues. "For those parents and carers who have made inquiries, we trust that it has helped give them confidence that their children are safe," he said. (5)
Against the critics, the police superintendent overseeing the trial in Peterborough, has noted that the fear of vigilante action had proven baseless and without foundation.
Critics feared the disclosure of sensitive information could lead to mob rule and drive paedophiles underground, making them more difficult to track. But Detective Superintendent John Raine, who has overseen the trial in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, said there had been no evidence of this during the pilot. Nine applications for disclosure were made in Cambridgeshire but police had not disclosed any information in any of those cases and no arrests had been made. "I think more than anything it has given people a window into our world and provided reassurance. It's helped people understand that we do all we can to protect children and that we are aware of people who may pose a risk," he added.(5)
I would hope that Jersey takes note of these developments in its own construction of a sex offenders register, and builds in or leaves room for the appropriate changes in the law to follow suit if the UK pilot becomes best practice over there. The law is complex, but if the United Kingdom can see fit to change it, we must be able to do so likewise in the pursuit of better standards for child protection for our children.
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