23 July 2006

Expert's stay out of jail card for sex crimes


SEX offenders should be allowed to avoid jail and attend rehabilitation programmes in the community, an Executive adviser on criminal justice claimed last night.

In a controversial bid to stop reoffending, Bill Whyte said that courts should consider "taking risks" by offering radical alternatives to prison.

Whyte, the director of the Scottish Executive-funded Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland, made the comments amid growing concerns that prison is failing to stop offending.

In 2005, just months after being allowed back into the community after a year's supervision in a centre for vulnerable children, Colyn Evans, by then 15, murdered 16-year-old Karen Dewar. In June last year he was jailed for life.

While a number of psychological programmes exist for sex offenders both in and out of prison, many do not take part - especially those who are serving short sentences of less than 12 months.

Whyte believes a new intensive rehabilitation programme - the Community Sex Offenders Group Work Programme - could prove a viable alternative to custody for those who have committed less serious crimes. It would also help stop the risk of criminals going on to commit increasingly worse offences on release.

The proposal, which was last night given a cautious welcome by politicians, would allow at least 100 sex offenders each year to avoid prison if they attend the course, aimed at teaching them how to control their urges and stop offending.

Those eligible could include offenders found guilty of crimes including indecent assault or exposure, sex with an underage girl or lewd and libidinous behaviour.

Whyte, who is currently evaluating the programme for local authorities, said: "We are using prison a lot, but if it's short term prison there's at least a question - is this the best?

"Clearly this programme is running because judges are deciding to place people on it subject to lengthy supervision. The question would be how sensible is it, if they can be on this programme, to go to prison for three months?

"Prison is for punishment. If that's what people want then fine. But do not pretend that's going to keep people safe.

"For people who connect, the programme is working very well. Our knowledge is getting more sophisticated and that means society needs to be willing to take risks.

"Risk avoidance will actually create problems because what you will do is move into a tick-box bureaucratic system that will have all the boxes ticked, but will the person be helped to change? For most other types of offence there's very little evidence that prison does anything but make people worse, but we still want to send them there.

"The government is investing substantial sums of money in dealing with sex offenders, and there has been a major investment in developing programmes in the community that will link with prisons, but it is all in its early days."

He added: "There are no certainties and people have to take risks. There is a wider context for these programmes in that people have other issues such as employment, relationships and accommodation which need to be taken into account.

"These are the issues that inevitably create tensions. We must not drive these people underground."

Official figures show that 1,133 people were found guilty of sex crimes in Scottish courts last year - a rise of 19% in 12 months. Ten per cent were sentenced to six months or less. Around 100 people are taking part in the sex offenders programme at any one time. It teaches them how to control their urges and change their behaviour.

Last night the Scottish Executive said it was up to sheriffs and judges to impose sentences. A spokeswoman said: "Sentencing is a matter for the courts, taking into account all the circumstances of a case.

"In relation to sex offenders, while these individuals may be small in number, they rightly generate considerable public concern, and we would expect that full consideration of the risk these individuals may pose to be taken into account when deciding on the most appropriate sentence to be given - with public safety remaining the over-riding priority.

"In terms of reducing reoffending, this has been placed at the heart of our criminal justice reforms, and we have set out a clear agenda to ensure progress on this, both in prison, on release and in the community. Accredited programmes for sex offenders have been developed for use in both the community and custodial settings.

"So whichever sentence the court imposes, effective work can be done to address the particular risks this group of offenders pose. We look forward to seeing the results of this evaluation in relation to tackling reoffending once the report has been published."

The SNP's deputy justice spokesman, Stewart Stevenson, said: "I strongly support the use of soundly developed psychological programmes for sex offenders.

"We know that long-term sex offenders who go through them voluntarily do significantly reduce their offending behaviour.

"The difficulty is that coercing people to do programmes does not have a track record of success. We need very careful selection and supervision while in the community.

"We need to be absolutely clear that we can see a real benefit and that the public are adequately protected."

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