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Reid warned against Megan's Law [in UK]

BBC News, 19 June 2006

John Reid has been warned against rushing to introduce a wholesale version of the Megan's Law system that deals with child sex offenders.

Ex-chief constable Paul Whitehouse says the move could divert attention from people who pose an even greater risk.

Minister Gerry Sutcliffe is going to the US to see how the system works and if a UK version could be introduced.

Megan's Law allows the public to know the whereabouts of people on the sex offenders register. 

'Starting point' 

It is known as Sarah's Law in this country, after Sarah Payne who was murdered six years ago. 

I have instructed that no child sex offenders reside in accommodation directly adjacent to schools. 
John Reid

In the meantime Mr Reid has decided that paedophiles are to be moved out of probation hostels next to schools.

This decision comes after a newspaper found 60 had been housed, with government approval, at sites near schools.

In a statement, Mr Reid said his "starting point" was 

"that information should no longer remain the exclusive preserve of officialdom".

"I'm sending my minister to America to discover the best way of ensuring the controlled release of information to the public," he said.

The News of the World newspaper, which uncovered the hostel details, has led the campaign for a UK version of Megan's law.

Sarah Payne's mother, Sara, said: 

"After six years of campaigning this is a tremendous breakthrough. I'm delighted."

Support needed

But Mr. Whitehouse, the former chief constable of Sussex Police and now vice president of Nacro, the charity that deals with the rehabilitation of criminals, says he is not confident Megan's Law
would work in the UK.

He urged caution against rushing to legislate on the measure, adding that children were at greater risk from people they know than complete strangers. 

"We need, therefore, to recognise that if we make it very public where particular well known sex offenders are that we divert attention from people who could pose a much greater risk," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. 

Offenders being released from prison needed support from programmes like the Quaker-run one called "Circles of Support", which is backed by the Home Office, he said. 

"If we concentrate on trying to prevent people reoffending, that's likely to be much more successful than just warning people about someone who might live down the road," he said. 

Anyone on the sex offenders register has to notify the authorities where they live, and if they are too near a school, action is taken, he said.

Daniel Dodson, of the National Association of American Criminal Defence Lawyers, said Megan's Law in the US had led to incidents of vigilantism by people who discovered the whereabouts of sex offenders. 

'Terrible thoughts' 

"These policies that we've set up over here, have opened up these people to ridicule even after they've served their punishment," he told Today.

"Generally it just makes it really hard for them to get along in life, really hard for them to have jobs and eventually can lead to a hopelessness that almost makes it more attractive for them to reoffend." 

However, the mother of a three-year-old who was kidnapped and sexually abused by a paedophile says she backs calls for Megan's Law. 

Craig Sweeney, 24, who took the toddler from her Cardiff home, received life but can seek parole after five years.

The youngster's mother said if she had known Sweeney 

"had these terrible thoughts in his mind, he wouldn't have stepped over my door".

Caution needed 

As part of the US system a number of states list offenders' details on the internet, allowing parents to enter their zip code (post code) or a name, to check if anyone on the register has moved in nearby.

There are about 100 probation hostels in England and Wales where ex-offenders live after their release from prison.

They have increasingly been used for high-risk offenders so they can be monitored and supervised more effectively.

The home secretary has now decided to stop paedophiles living in hostels near schools and has instructed the National Offender Management Service to implement "restricted admission" at 11 such hostels.

Shadow home secretary David Davis told the BBC that ministers should adopt a very careful approach. 

"We must almost make sure we don't end up with some lynch mob law. And bear in mind we've had the Criminal Records Bureau failures, with innocent people being given apparent criminal records." 

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: 

"Of course every measure should be taken to protect children from paedophiles, but this should never topple into vigilantism." 

Ex-home secretary Jack Straw also urged caution and said lessons learned from other countries were 

"not necessarily immediately translatable into this country".

The 11 hostels where child sex offenders will not be allowed to stay are: [....]

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