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Sep 10

Sarah’s Law is Better Than Megan’s Law. So What?

Posted on Thursday, September 10, 2009 in civil liberties, Editorial

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(photo source)

Mary Dejevsky argues Britain’s version of America’s Megan’s Law is an improvement:

But this pilot Sarah’s Law was, in fact, very different from Megan’s Law, and potentially more effective for that reason. As a rule, it preserves the anonymity of registered offenders, leaving in place the incentive to remain above ground. Their disappearance is what prompts disclosure of identity. Information will be provided about convicted sex offenders in the neighbourhood, but only to those with a reason to ask. There are no police websites, where you can scan, voyeuristically, for paedophiles on your own, or someone else’s, patch.

The most innovative, and pertinent, aspect of Sarah’s Law, however, allows parents and other carers to ask the police whether someone with access to their children has a child sex conviction. This recognises that abductions, such as that of Jaycee Dugard in California or Sarah Payne here, account for a tiny minority of child sex offences.

The vast majority are committed by members of the child’s immediate circle, with fully 80 per cent taking place in the home of the offender or the victim. Mothers who might have concerns about a new partner are among those encouraged to use the service, and in the four areas of the pilot, more than 80 applications for information were received in the first six months alone.

It is true that Stacey Lawrence’s killer, although accused of assault by his former wife, would not have shown up in police records – even if Stacey’s mother had suspected anything (which she did not). Nor can it be known how often paedophiles seek out lone mothers, with a view to gaining access to their children. But what cannot be disputed is that there will be more cases like Stacey Lawrence’s than will have drama of Jaycee Dugard’s, and that Sarah’s Law is better framed to protect children than Megan’s – even if in Stacey’s case, tragically, it failed.

It’s a somewhat odd argument, which she concludes by arguing against. Firstly she’s right – there will always be a level of risk in society – for adults as well as children, but these laws are being pursued anyway; they are symptom of a prevailing belief in government that databases and registers can somehow protect us from all ills. It’s a dangerous delusion. Sometimes Sarah Paynes will happen, even if they’re as thoroughly supervised as parents could naturally be expected to manage, and Stacey Lawrences indeed can’t be 100% prevented – what about dangerous people who don’t appear on the sex offenders’ register? She fails however to acknowledge the other fundamental flaws in the ‘Sarah’s Law’ pilots – applying the same rationalised principles we do to our economy to the administration of our private relationships is just bananas – it’s not only counter-productive (adults and children becoming increasingly alienated from each other, children not taught to risk assess on their own), but it really won’t result in vulnerable adults being safeguarded any better than ‘Megan’s Law’ – is anyone really naïve enough to think the police with parents ‘and other carers’ can be trusted any more than a baying mob?

It’s a step forward to acknowledge that the vast majority of paedophile attacks happen within the close family, I’ll admit (though it fundamentally undermines the entire rationale for having an Independent Safeguarding Authority), but this project (as the ISA) undermines the basis of justice and the rule of law. It’s a dangerous road we head down if we accept the validity of permanent punishment, and doubly so when we remember that the categorisation of what’s now labelled as a ‘child sex offence’ has grown exponentially under New Labour – presuming that everyone on the sex offenders’ register presents an equal risk to children will just put hundreds of people who do not pose any threat into the line of fire. It misses the point – firstly why not look for people with sexual offences prevention orders (SOPO) rather than the less informative ‘child sex convictions’, but why stop there? If the aim is ‘protection’ why not do a full criminal records bureau (CRB)? Why not get ‘someone with access to their children’ vetted by the ISA? Where would it end? The milkman? New boyfriend? Child’s new best friend? Their parents? Their extended family? Where does the line get drawn? History has shown when such intrusion can be taken to an extreme it will be, and for how significant a benefit?

Is it right to try to protect children as much as possible? Of course, but to say Sarah’s Law is better than Megan’s because of a presumption that individuals who ‘need to know’ are less likely to threaten the safety of people on the sex offenders’ register than the general public, in a free-for-all information grab is staggeringly naïve. Sarah’s Law is just as much a hand-wringing sop to the child protection lobby as Megan’s Law, it will continue to increase alienation between adults and children, distort how private relationships are formed in this country, and lead us away from what was once a more enlightened understanding of risk assessment. We may live in a largely post-modern society but I have no desire for it to be run under The Jeremy Kyle Show’s principles. These pilots undermine the social fabric itself.

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