Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Place for Paedophiles?

I watched Louis Theroux's documentary A Place for Paedophiles which was on BBC 2 the other day and would recommend everyone to check it out on BBC i-Player. Overall it was surprisingly not as involving as some of his other documentaries (possibly because he himself struggled with the subject matter and the men involved) but the subject itself is a very important one.

The place in question is the Coalinga State Hospital in the State of California. This is an institution built to house convicted sex offenders considered too dangerous to be released back into the community, particularly paedophiles, due to the high risk of them re-offending. There is a programme on offer which potentially offers the 'patients' a chance of release back into the community, however this is not a common occurrence, particularly since the majority of the patients (c.70%) refuse to participate in the programme - these men, barring successful legal appeals, are therefore contained in the Hospital for the remainder of their lives.

Louis identified a great deal of resentment amongst the patients who felt that their civil liberties and constitutional rights were being withheld from them. All of the patients had been convicted of sexual offences and had served prison sentences. Their move to the hospital came at the end of their sentences, when they would have expected that they would be released back into society, having 'served their time'. As their current holding (Louis referred to the hospital as a warehouse) is to prevent potential future crimes which they therefore have not yet committed, they feel that they are being doubly and unfairly punished - as one patient declared "If you are going to lock people up for crimes they haven't yet committed, you'll need to lock everyone up". And this seemed to be a view point shared by some of the therapeutic staff working with the patients.

At first glance it is certainly possible to identify the 'slippery slope' argument which is contained within their protestations. If the state starts to lock up people for crimes they have not yet committed, where will this end? Could it indeed be used to justify locking up anybody and everybody on the basis of some potential future crime?

This is an important point to bear in mind, however it also ignores the reality of the issue which is behind the holding of these men. Their hospitalisation is due to the deep-rooted psychological traits which underpinned the actions which led to their incarceration. The patients in Coalinga are men responsible for systematic and calculated abuse, the full extent of which in many cases has not yet come to light. These are not criminals who committed a crime of acquisition or opportunity, these are fundamentally psychologically deviant men with whom it is impossible (certainly prior to participation in the five phase programme Coalinga uses, and probably even after) to give even a vague assurance that they will not re-offend. For these men there is something 'wrong' with them which serving their time does not solve and which remains, essentially, a way of life which many of them do not consider to be wrong.

The issue draws back to what our prison service and penal code is for. There are three core reasons for imprisonment - rehabilitation, punishment and protection. Imprisoning a paedophile for his (or her) crimes demonstrates the punishment for the crime, society's way of saying we caught you so you must be punished for this. However, the punishment is invariably a short-term pointless term in prison which serves no purpose other than to act as a slap on the wrist. Certainly there is no chance for even a stab at rehabilitation. And this is fundamentally the crux of the matter for me - if there is no rehabilitation possible in the time available then more than just punishment is required. In this case the third purpose, protection, must come into force.

This protection is for society as a whole, as without a long term period of rehabilitation and therapeutic support systematic paedophiles present a very real and ongoing threat to the communities they live in. This sort of sexual dysfunction is therefore a continuing motivation and cause of danger - certainly with the pathetically inappropriate prison sentences, lack of rehabilitation in prison and scarcity of support outwith prison, it is naive in the extreme to believe that paedophiles will be able to self-regulate their behaviour completely on their own.

It is therefore wrong to see institutions such as Coalinga as punishments for crimes which are yet to be committed; rather they are institutions designed to protect both the patient and society from the urges and dysfunction which is beyond their control. This lack of control is not an excuse or justification for their actions - regardless of the dysfunctional psychological state they may possess, they are still responsible for making choices to offend. However, the lack of control is the basis for continuing to hold them away from society until a time when it can be demonstrated that their urges have been brought to a regulated level.

I don't agree with the logic behind laws such as Megan's Law or Sarah's Law where the presence of convicted paedophiles in the community must be made available (to the point, in the US, of addresses being available online). This leads to two dangers - vigilante behaviour and also, ironically, false sense of security which can create conditions for abuse. The majority of sex offenders are known to the person concerned, with many being parents or guardians - 'Stranger Danger' ignores this reality. In addition, many sex offenders are unknown to authorities due to not having been caught - they will therefore not appear on any registers or lists. However, the demand behind measures such as these do reflect a public perception that the current response to sex offenders is not working. The pointless and inappropriate prison terms coupled with the recognised lack of rehabilitation and support demonstrate to the public that this is an issue which is not be handled effectively by the state, with the danger being left for their communities and families - a situation which is always guaranteed to cause anger and reaction.

The existence of Coalinga is not a cheap one (it costs roughly $200,000 p.a. to house each patient) and it does raise controversy about civil liberties. However, it also serves to protect society from individuals who present a clear and lasting threat - in this case prevention may well be better than reaction. Certainly in the UK we need an in-depth review of all sentencing and support for sex offenders to ensure that imprisonment and monitoring following release meets all three of the reasons behind imprisonment. It is not enough to merely impose a short term sentence and then wash our hands of these offenders - our society and its vulnerable members deserve more from us. Maybe the UK has need of an institution like Coalinga in order to protect society from those whose dysfunction prevents a threat to it. We wouldn't release a sociopathic serial killer back into the community, whose psychological dysfunctions present a continuing risk to society - is it not time to realise that sexual offenders represent a similar threat?


James said...

Well-argued, very clear. The exact distinction you draw on is what has led me to an unusually illiberal position on sex offenders.

if you cross a line (and we can debate where it falls) you have forfeited your right to participate in society: it's a lesser right than that of the public not to be unknowingly mingling with the most extreme sex/violence offenders.

It's not an easy answer, but I think it's necessary too. The nonsense of Megan's law type moves helps to demonstrate it too, as you say.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Yes James, I think it is the forfeiting of rights that is crucial to this issue. Individual civil liberties are very important in any free democratic society, however they also have to be balanced with the civil liberties of society as a whole - as you say, these will have the priority in this situation.

Stuart Winton said...

I'm inclined to agree with your conclusion Jamie, which is backed by comprehensive and compelling argument.

The objections seem perhaps based on the fact that the offenders serve a prison sentence and then move onto another form of incarceration, which perhaps cements the impression that they're being imprisoned without proper due process, however the actual system works - presumably there are checks and balances.

Perhaps a better idea would be to commit them to the relevant institution at the sentencing stage based on an assessment at that time, which might mitigate the impression that they're being imprisoned for a crime that they merely might commit.

Stuart Winton said...

Jamie, on a pedantic note I'm not so sure about your rationales for imprisonment, one of which you describe as 'punishment'.

Of course, the theories and terminologies vary, but the ones I've seen usually describe punishment as the action requiring a rationale rather than one of the rationales.

For example, a punishment could be imprisonment, a fine, probation etc.

The rationales for punishment could include rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution etc. I use the term 'retribution' here in the sense you used 'punishment' in your post.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

I think you are right Stuart about the difficulty of the hospitalisation running after the conclusion of a prison sentence. The answer to this would perhaps be to view cases of this nature as requiring hospitalisation as the response, leaving aside the use of imprisonment.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

In regards to your pendantic point I see where you are coming from and agree with you. Retribution would explain the rationale behind punishment (in this case incarceration) - in effect that there must be a response to the individual's actions.

Part of the difficulty in using retribution is that it is a word which is not commonly used or understood, and therefore carries certain connotations which can make a debate over judicial theory more challenging to engage with. However I agree with your rationale for it in this context - as a concept it covers more than just the 'punishment' of imprisonment or other measures, instead demonstrating the underlying motivation for taking those decisions.

I do think it is very important that there is more debate over the use of imprisonment, however, as I think that we are quickly trying to follow the US model of incarcerating everybody, which appears to have very little evidence to demonstrate its success. I think that what is needed is an approach which utilises all of the motivations which you highlighted - appropriate retribution for the crime committed, support by rehabilition for the criminal to prevent re-offending and a wider deterrence for both that individual and others in the community to prevent similar activity.

Any action which solely focusses on one of these drives seems, at least to me, to be doomed to failure - certainly imprisonment alone (with a pure focus on retribution) does not seem successful.

DanielB said...

I just got done watching the show. I was rather confused by much of what and how it was presented. When I was looking for some more info I came across your blog and thought I should let you in on a little bit more.

It wasn't really made clear enough that Coalinga State Hospital isn't just a new trend in the ever more punitive way the US treats even minor offenders. It's a hospital with 1500 beds, 800 current inmates and 1600 staff. The hospital is meant to contain sexually violent predators. In other words, these aren't your run of the mill sex offenders. They are next to being the worst of the worst.

A very apt example is Jeffery Dahmer. He was on probation or work release when he tortured, raped and murdered 13 of his victims. He was also a repeat offender. He really was the worst of the worst.

If you look up the types of crimes that were committed to get the offenders sent to this facility then correlate the recidivism statistics with those convictions you'll be able to see just what's going on. These are exactly the people who should not be allowed to fall through the cracks.

I don't think there was enough detail given as to just how bad the crimes were and what that means. The descriptions that the offenders gave were very rationalized and nonchalant. Yet, if you could read the files that are repeated referred to then there would be shockingly long time periods involved, methodically thorough processes and other bizarre behaviors.

The only thing that the show framed well was that the government probably did lie about sentencing. That needs to change. It gives voice and sympathy where there should be none.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Hi Daniel

Thanks for your points, I think you raise some important issues. The programme did indeed skirt around the crimes that had led to the men being kept at the institution, which did lend an air of innocence to some of them. I did that Louis's reaction towards them (normally he is unflappable no matter how awful the people he is dealing with are) demonstrated some of the underlying disgust.

But you are also right about the need for openness in order to avoid any feelings of sympathy towards the individuals. They are in the institution because they are dangerous predators and an ongoing threat to society - this must be held up as the justification for their removal from society.