Johann Hari: Paedophiles need help not persecution

Megan's Law would require the Government to commit a fresh blood sacrifice of innocent children
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Now that John Reid is considering caving in to the News of the World's incessant demand for the Government to publish the name and address of every paedophile in the country, Britain's conversion into a Murdochracy is almost complete. If they moved the Home Office to Wapping and turned every last Murdochian snarl into law, would anybody notice the difference?

Yet, at first glance, this particular proposal might sound like common sense. In 1994, a seven-year-old girl in New Jersey called Megan Kanka was lured into the house of a neighbour, Jesse Timmendequas, by an offer to see his puppy. He raped her for days before strangling her with a belt.

In the grief-strewn aftermath, it turned out that Timmendequas had a previous conviction for child molestation. Megan's mother was appalled that she didn't know, and launched a campaign for local police to be legally required to tell families when a paedophile moves into the neighbourhood. Who could object? Except in practice, introducing Megan's Law would require the Government to commit a fresh blood-sacrifice of innocent children to appease their red-top newspaper gods. John Reid claims he is sending one of his ministers to the States only to "study the evidence", but he knows the evidence is already in, and has been clear for some time. Far from protecting little girls like Megan, the law named after her actually increases the number of children raped and murdered.

To understand why, you have to talk to the people who work with paedophiles. They are invariably the strongest and fiercest opponents of Megan's Law. Pam Welch, a prison officer who works in-depth with paedophiles, explains: "It is when these people feel isolated and friendless that the risk of reoffending is highest. They feel that if the world considers them a monster, they might as well behave like a monster. At least then there might be some feeling of pleasure, and some measure of control."

Megan's Law guarantees that a released paedophile will be put in this position. Instead of being able to find a job, build normal adult relationships and be given help to resist their darkest urges, they are plunged into a scalding bath of hatred. One newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, documented the effect of Megan's Law in Newburgh, a small town in up-state New York. When a sex offender named John Duck Jnr was released on parole to live with his elderly parents, their neighbours were told about his crimes by hundreds of police knocking door-to-door with leaflets. All three family members received a cascade of death threats. A howling picket was established outside their house for weeks, demanding Duck "get out now!!" - presumably to a mythical place with no children. (He couldn't anyway - it was a condition of his parole to remain at that address.) He was shunned everywhere he went, unemployable and friendless. The few neighbours who did speak to him received threats of their own.

It's hard to think of a situation more likely to make a sex offender relapse and destroy another child's life. That's why, despite Megan's Law being introduced in every state, rates of child rape and murder by strangers have not fallen; in many, they have increased.

The only programmes with a proven track record of reducing reoffending adopt precisely the opposite approach to Megan's Law. Jim Nethercott is an American who worked for 20 years as a detective tracking down paedophiles. When he started, he saw this question through a standard News of the World frame, where the issue was "black and white. There was the good side and the bad side, and criminals in general deserved to be locked up for as long as they could be locked up." But as his investigations led him to meet paedophiles - pitiful people, 70 per cent of whom have been raped as children themselves - he began to believe that once they have been properly punished for their crimes, "we have to give these offenders some reason to go ahead and succeed in life. Most offenders want to change, they just lack the tools."

Nethercott decided to set up an institution where paedophiles would be given extensive, gruelling therapy to understand and control their urges. They learn to empathise with their former victims, and discover the trigger points that make them more likely to relapse. Of course, there is an untreatable minority of sociopaths who don't respond and shouldn't be released. But for the vast majority, it works. The people released from Wyoming Honor Farm are 50 per cent less likely to reoffend - a remarkable drop.

As John Reid knows perfectly well, he doesn't even have to look this far for success stories. A brilliant programme piloted by Thames Valley Police over the past three years here in Britain has provided released paedophiles with a similar support network of trained "friends", who they can call 24/7 for help in rebuilding their lives or if they think they are at risk of relapsing. Not a single one of the 48 people on the programme has relapsed.

Before he was released, Jesse Timmendequas begged for therapy like this. The woman conducting his psychiatric evaluation persistently said he needed "intensive psychotherapy in the community following release". He was offered nothing, and went on to rape and kill Megan. Here is another area where a "tough" policy creates more victims, while a "soft" policy actually works. Here is a paedophile policy that really protects kids - but it doesn't please the News of the World, so in Rupert Murdoch's Britain, it won't happen.

But the danger from Megan's Law isn't just to paedophiles and the children they are more likely to rape. Across the US, since it was introduced, there has been a Columbine-sized massacre of paedophiles, their relatives and anybody who got in the way. It started in Nova Scotia when a vigilante found the addresses of two sex offenders from the register, hunted them down and killed them. Almost the same thing happened months later in Maine - and one of the victims was on the register because, as a 19-year-old, he had consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. In New Jersey, a man was beaten nearly to death after he was mistaken for his sex offender brother. This list could go on and on.

If this was really about protecting kids, the Government would be sticking to the evidence and offering paedophiles who want to go straight far more support and therapy. Incredibly, two-thirds of sex offenders leave prison without going through sex-offender treatment programmes at all. But, no, this is about something very different. It is about John Reid posturing as a hard man to please Rupert Murdoch and the most base chunk of public opinion, as he tries to position himself as Tony Blair's successor. Ah well, what's a few raped kids when the keys to Downing Street are at stake?