Moves to keep sex offenders off streets

PUBLISHED: 18:18 14 December 2001 | UPDATED: 11:02 03 March 2010

In the wake of the Roy Whiting and Kevin Chambers cases, there are moves to take dangerous sex offenders off the streets - and keep them locked up. Political Editor PAUL GEATER looks at what changes are being made to the law in a bid to reduce the danger of these offences happening again.

In the wake of the Roy Whiting and Kevin Chambers cases, there are moves to take dangerous sex offenders off the streets - and keep them locked up. Political Editor PAUL GEATER looks at what changes are being made to the law in a bid to reduce the danger of these offences happening again.

THE trial of Roy Whiting has drawn attention to two major issues which were also highlighted during the case of Ipswich rapist Kevin Chambers.

Both re-offended after being released from prison even though the authorities still considered them to be dangerous.

And both were convicted for crimes that bore a striking resemblance to earlier offences - even though the jury was not told about their previous convictions.

Chambers was sentenced to life imprisonment in early 2000 after being convicted of the subway rape of an Ipswich teenager in September 1999 - an attack that happened just hours after he was released from Wormwood Scrubs.

There have been some significant steps forward in the way the law deals with dangerous sex offenders since Whiting was jailed for the first time in 1995.

For several years there have been suggestions that ministers are contemplating "indefinite' sentences for dangerous offenders such as predatory paedophiles - but firm proposals have yet to emerge.

The verdict prompted several influential organisations to renew calls for indefinite sentences, which would see paedophiles jailed for good, with occasional reviews by experts.

Such legislation would be highly controversial, and would face significant hurdles on human rights grounds.

In the meantime, the Government has set up the Dangerous Offenders Unit at the Home Office, which is given the names of all dangerous offenders who are released from jail.

It keeps tabs on them, in partnership with probation officers, to ensure that they are getting proper supervision and suitable accommodation.

In the near future, another move is afoot to change the legal principle which prevented jurors knowing of Roy Whiting's previous conviction for child sex abuse.

The Government wants to reform the jealously-guarded principle of English criminal law which generally keeps such details firmly under wraps until the verdict is returned.

Jurors in the Sarah Payne trial were kept in the dark about Whiting's 1995 conviction for abducting and indecently assaulting a nine-year-old girl, for which he was jailed for four years.

Lawyers have long argued that telling juries about a defendant's past crimes would be a recipe for unfair trials, and as the law stands previous convictions can only be mentioned in specific circumstances.

Two influential reports have suggested that the law should be reformed so that they can be disclosed in more trials.

The Government's commitment to changing the law became clear in October, when Home Office officials left a sheaf of confidential papers in a Westminster pub.

The papers, which found their way to Fleet Street, disclosed that changing the rules on previous convictions was "a clear priority for the Prime Minister' and ranked it high on a list of priorities.

However, civil rights campaigners believe any change would seriously damage the quality of British justice.

Jonathan Ripman, Public Relations Officer for Suffolk and North Essex Law Society said:

"This is precisely the case where had the jury known about a previous conviction for a similar type if offence they would have lost all objectivity and simply convicted the defendant without hearing the evidence.

"He would have been hung by that previous conviction.

"It is vital that the jury convict on the evidence in the particular case and not on the basis of anything else."

New Ipswich MP Chris Mole raised the issue of the Whiting and Chambers cases at a meeting with Michael Wills, from the Lord Chancellor's department yesterday.

"I am in favour of government moves to encourage more use of indeterminate sentences and to reform the rules surrounding disclosure of previous offences in specific cases," he said.

"The important thing it to protect the public, and especially vulnerable people. The Chambers case in Ipswich was very shocking and lessons still have to be learned from this.

"I was encouraged by what Michael Wills had to say, it is an issue that the government is taking seriously."

Another new measure is the sex offenders' register, which was set up in September 1997 to help police and probation officers keep track of sex criminals.

It now holds about 15,000 names and has proved a crucial tool in solving a number of sex crimes.

The UK has the largest Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) in the world.

Offered by a total of 26 jails, it involves up to 172 hours of group therapy sessions in which paedophiles learn to recognise the terror they have caused their victims.

The therapy sessions are also designed to stop them re-offending.

Last year the SOTP handled 786 sex offenders, about 25% short of its 1,020 target. Officials say studies have shown it has a "dramatic effect on reducing reoffending".

However, as the law stands, 30 to 40 dangerous offenders are released from jail every month because they have come to the end of their sentences - like Whiting and Chambers.

Half of these are violent criminals and half are sexual offenders.

Sara and Michael Payne are campaigning for the names of these men and all other sex offenders to be available on a public register.

Others argue that such a move would drive perverts "underground' and say a better alternative would be to change the way offenders are sentenced..

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