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Paedophiles may be mad or bad. But not both.

If Gary Glitter is a criminal, and not mentally ill, then he has paid the price and we should not punish him again

Sarler, Carol, The Times August 21, 2008

With impeccably spun timing, while Gary Glitter hunkered down at Bangkok airport to avoid police interrogation at Heathrow, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, took to the airwaves yesterday to announce new initiatives to prevent paedophiles from travelling as “sex tourists”. Snatch their passports, she cried. Ground them for five years. Nail their filthy feet to the floor.

Her plans, no doubt, resonated with public opinion. In announcing them, however, she reinforced a largely unacknowledged muddle at the heart of all debate on the subject of paedophilia: is it an illness, or is it a crime?

At the moment, galvanised by the desire to be as punitive as possible, we mix and match. When it suits us to invoke the idea of uncontrollable urges, we do exactly that - look how readily the tabloid press appends “sick!” to any mention of child abuse. On the other hand, when it suits us to argue for the throwing away of keys, as befits any rotten but otherwise common criminal, we do that instead. The truth is, it's time to choose.

If we accept that paedophilia is an illness - 
- and there are reasoned voices who say that it is - then, by definition, we accept it as being beyond the control of its sufferer in exactly the way that we accept schizophrenia. Therefore, we should respond as such: if a man, for reasons not remotely his fault, is posing a risk to others, he should be subject to sectioning under the Mental Health Act, with all the appropriate regret, sympathy and kindness that accompanies such a move. Given the grip of the current bogeyman frenzy, it is hard to see that one playing in Peoria; nevertheless, it would be the only humane response. 
If we accept that it is a crime, however, 
then it is something which the perpetrator can control. He may choose to offend or not, and if he chooses what is unacceptable, again we should respond as such. We catch the bastard, try him, lock him up by way of penalty and then - this is the crucial bit - once he has served his sentence we restore his liberty. In full.

This has been the fundamental principle of justice, at least within crime and punishment, that has stood us in reasonable stead since Magna Carta. 

Now, just because one particular category of behaviour is exciting public consciousness - pressing, as it does, all the right buttons such as “sex” and “children” - is collective gut revulsion really enough to challenge copper-bottomed, tried, tested and trusted legal tradition?

We already have 30,000 people on the sex offenders register; people who paid the decreed price for their offence and now will spend the rest of their lives paying again. This sounds as titillatingly vast a number as it is meant to sound - although closer scrutiny shows that it certainly does not mean 30,000 icons of unparalleled evil are out on the loose; among those whose details are kept and lives monitored for ever, a great many are included for nothing more dreadful than slightly under-age, consensual sex. But never mind. Keep the figure high and the hysteria higher still.

Increasingly, on the back of that hysteria, authorities of law and order expect Brownie points for imposing yet more restrictions, clampdowns and controls - and, thanks also to the hysteria, they are permitted to do so without attention being paid to the anomalies thus created.

Take, for instance, a man who had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl or boy. If caught, and especially if force were involved, he would expect a severe sentence - at the end of which, he would emerge into the light of day and have his every movement monitored for the rest of his natural life. And so what, you say, shedding not a tear.

Quite so. But if that same man had broken every bone in that same 14-year-old child's body, he would similarly expect a severe sentence - at the end of which the prison gates would slam behind him and he would be totally free.

By the same token, Gary Glitter might deserve not a jot of our concern. None the less, in his disinclination to chat with a police officer at Heathrow, presumably before being added to the sex offenders register, he does have a point. For had his crime been other than fiddling with little Vietnamese girls, had he instead been convicted and imprisoned for, say, drug smuggling or a gang-related killing spree, he could return to Britain without a shred of further official intervention in his life.

It is, of course, understandable that there is a fear of recidivism; few of us really believe that the Vietnamese girls were Glitter's first victims. But recidivism is rife in almost all crimes, and the law does not allow for the pre-emption of the next occurrence; when a released armed robber returns to his trade, with the accompanying risk to the lives of innocent people, he will be punished after the event, not in case of it.

Further, until that time, he will not be spied upon - in part because we do not have the resources, but in greater part, I fancy, because we would consider perpetual surveillance and control an unacceptable step towards a police state. In short, we sacrifice potential future victims of the armed robber's gun for a system that we find morally more palatable.

Harder to sacrifice Glitter's potential future victims? Of course. Putting children in danger outweighs almost any other consideration - except, perhaps, the danger of the precedent set by singling out one identifiable group and excluding it from the principles of law that apply to all others.

The solution, therefore, is 

either to declare all those on the sex offenders register to be unwell and apply open-ended treatment, compassionately, according to the severity of their condition - 
or to declare them criminals, take our several pounds of flesh and let them go. 

Mad or bad. But we can't, in conscience, have it both ways.

So you pick.

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