Tougher laws on child sex crime have 'limited value'

Payne verdict: Reforms
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Sweeping changes to the policing and treatment of child sex offenders have been introduced since Sarah Payne was murdered yet many experts believe the reforms are unlikely to stop similar killings in the future.

After public revulsion in rection to her murder, a series of measures was introduced in the Crime and Police Act 2001 to ensure that the authorities paid closer attention to high-risk offenders.

Although Roy Whiting was placed on the Sex Offenders Register in 1997 and was visited at his home by police officers, he was only subject to supervision by the probation service for four months after leaving prison.

The timing of his release meant he was not subject to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which would probably have seen him supervised for four years and possibly for 10. It also enabled him to resist attending sex offender treatment programmes, which are now much more widely available.

Among the new measures was a statutory obligation on police and probation officers to draw up an intensive supervision plan for all high-risk offenders. The authorities were also given other provisions, including electronic tagging systems, to monitor offenders more closely.

Under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act, which was implemented in June 2001, courts can make restraining orders prohibiting the offender from actions such as contacting victims, and order registered sex offenders to notify police of any intention to travel abroad for eight days or more. The maximum penalty for failure to register was increased from six months' to five years' imprisonment. There are currently about 15,000 sex offenders registered – and about 450 have failed to register.

Stung by criticism that paedophiles are being released from jail to commit further offences against children, the Home Office has been reviewing the sentencing regime.

The Government isconsidering introducing an indeterminate jail term under which anyone convicted of a crime that carries a maximum life sentence can be kept in jail indefinitely if they are still considered dangerous. Other measures include forcing criminals still considered a danger – mainly paedophiles and psychopaths – to serve all their sentence in prison rather than being released after they have completed half or two-thirds of the sentence. A sentencing White Paper is due in the spring. The Home Office is also considering the highly controversial move of allowing jurors to be given details of previous convictions.

Despite the reforms, officers and criminologists warned that all existing measures were only of limited value.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the new measures would help. But he added that 37,300 sex crimes were committed in England and Wales to the year ending in March 2001, and it was not realistic or desirable to lock up all the offenders for life. "You would have a prison population you could not control," he said.

David Wilson, professor in criminology at the University of Central England, said some paedophiles would continue to attack because they never thought they would be caught. He said evidence from Canada suggested that reoffending by high-risk paedophiles could be cut by 60 per cent if offenders were forced to integrate into communities rather than being driven out of them.