We need more than jail for child abuse

Incredible though it may seem, there are hundreds of thousands of paedophiles living among us, perhaps next door or on the next floor. That, at least, is the estimate of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and nobody has seriously questioned its research. According to the NSPCC, 16% of all women and 7% of all men interviewed said they had been physically sexually abused before they were 12. That would amount to one in nine children.

Although I find this hard to believe, I cannot dispute it. What I find even more incredible, and do dispute, are the comments on Friday of Jim Gamble, a senior policeman in charge of child protection. He said on the BBC’s Today programme that “the scale of paedophilia means that we need to look beyond the criminal justice system for answers. Judges should consider [police] cautions rather than jail”.

That was startling enough but perhaps there is a case, given that there are only 80,000 prison places (occupied by more than 81,000 prisoners), for not jailing people whose only offences are to look at child porn on the internet. I do not think it is a good case but these are, at least, people who have not directly harmed a child in person. But what Gamble went on to say was truly astonishing.

“Some predatory paedophiles,” he continued, “should be offered treatment instead of being locked up.” He explained that he meant “where there is evidence that a person may benefit from a caution and can be managed”. All the assumptions in this are wrong. First is the assumption, with a predatory paedophile, that there is any “treatment” that works – and indeed that paedophilia of any degree can be treated.

Second is the assumption that dangerous offenders can be efficiently “managed” in the community, whether treated or not. Third is the assumption that there is “evidence” in such situations, which can inform decisions. And lastly there is an unspoken assumption that a person given to perverse pleasures “of the viewing kind” will stop at that.

Finally there was Gamble’s astonishing recommendation that people who found themselves gripped by paedophile urges should come forward, ’fess up and ask for “help”. Would-be kiddy fiddlers will step forward about as soon as pigs get wings.

Consider the figures. According to Home Office research into sex and violent offenders, astonishing numbers are driven to reoffend. More than 90% of those considered at very high risk will reoffend, as will about half of all at high risk and about a third of medium risk offenders. Clearly treatments to prevent paedophiles reoffending – talking therapies, antiandrogen drugs and antidepressants – are at best extremely unreliable.

What’s left is containment in jail or supervision in the community. Locking someone up has at least the benefit of removing him from temptation. But consider what community supervision amounts to. Under present minimum standards, registered sex offenders considered low risk are visited by a police officer once a year, and those at medium risk are seen every six to nine months. If that seems inadequate, the minimum for those much likelier to offend seems quite unacceptable – a visit only every three to six months for a high risk offender. Those at very high risk get looked in on just once a quarter.

It would take immense care to monitor such a person and stay wise to their notorious deceptions. The mentoring buddy schemes in North America suggest spending at least three hours a day with an offender. Then you have only to think of the disastrous failures in this country of probation orders and tagging in general. You might almost as well skip it altogether.

It’s true that agencies have discretion to visit people more often, which they use. But to keep a close eye on known offenders, let alone those who’ve merely received cautions, is clearly quite impossible. The point of multi-agency public protection agreements, set up in 2001, was to get different agencies to talk to each other without demarcation disputes. Perhaps they do so more than previously, though I can’t help feeling sceptical, given the inefficiencies of police, probation and welfare agencies.

Given all this, police cautions and community supervision seem inadequate. The question is what, if anything, could be done instead. With serious and persistent offenders – the men who are addicted to the most disgusting abuse – the only answer is segregation. Prison sentences come to an end but their tragic tendencies don’t. Some bloggers have been suggesting dumping them on offshore islands, rather like leper colonies, for their own protection as well as ours. That seems extreme; gated communities might be more humane but they would have to be slightly involuntary.

At the other end of the paedophile spectrum, with those who are obsessed with internet images of children, there are some practical steps that could be taken without horrifying civil libertarians. I don’t know whether this obsession is necessarily a precursor to something worse but it is an evil in itself, since it involves harm to the children in the porn trade.

Perhaps something could be done about it without putting brakes on that great engine of universal freedom, the internet. It might be possible to persuade those of us who aren’t paedophiles to demand internet security software that blocks paedophile websites and material. Market leaders would build such blocks into their software, shaming other producers who did not do so. Internet cafes and offices would use it.

As a result a person of perverted tastes would have to make a conscious effort to buy unusual software to get access to paedophile people or material. If he were under suspicion or trying to argue that he accessed some porn group by “mistake”, he would have to explain why he hadn’t protected himself against such embarrassing and indeed illegal accidents.

Alternatively the government could insist that all internet service providers block this stuff. That can’t be difficult to do – the Chinese government manages to screen out most references to Tiananmen Square and democracy.