Ged Bailes: Some fears cannot be overcome

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Whenever there is a headline about a convicted killer undertaking a supervised shopping trip or visit to the seaside, public concern is understandable. That anxiety will always be greatly magnified when a very high-profile name – such as that of Peter Sutcliffe – enters the public domain in the context of a possible release.

For those of us who work with patients in secure hospitals, the tension between helping these individuals with a severe mental illness who have committed the most serious offences and public concern at the risk that they may re-offend is something we encounter on a daily basis.

There can be no doubt that there are crimes which are so extreme that the perpetrator can never be released on the grounds of public safety and the need for justice to be done. There are people who have to be incarcerated for a long, long time.

But the law of the land also states that whatever a person has done, there are certain circumstances in which they are able to apply for parole. This is not an arbitrary process by which an offender can be suddenly released on flimsy evidence.

It is a lengthy and very carefully thought-out process in which multiple factors are examined and weighed up, from the conduct of the individual on a day-to-day basis to the amount of insight they have into their offence, from the ability to monitor an individual in the community to the safety of the public.

Those shopping trips or outings only take place after an offender has jumped many hurdles to get to that position.

With an offender who has a serious mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia – the condition with which Sutcliffe has been diagnosed – the task is to manage that condition.

Schizophrenia cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Roughly a quarter of sufferers can have their symptoms very well controlled and lead very productive lives. Around 50 per cent can be helped but will see their symptoms fluctuate and another quarter are resistant to treatment or medication does not help them.

Attitudes to some forms of mental illness in this country have changed and there is greater understanding that many conditions can be managed. But when it comes to crimes of violence, particularly where a crime is sexually violent, it is extremely difficult to escape the fear and anxiety that such offences generate. In the more sensational cases, those fears are heightened and need to be recognised.

Ged Bailes is a consultant forensic psychologist at the Norvic Clinic, a secure psychiatric unit in Norwich