Monday 2nd April 2012
A Reassurance Con? UK Public protection for modern times - Professor Mike Nash
"One of the paradoxes of public protection is that evidence tells us where most risk lies, but we appear determined to react to rare and ‘abnormal’ crimes committed by those presented as monsters. It is as if society needs to believe in these monsters as a means of reaffirming social norms and morality (Douard, 2008/9). Perceptions of dangerousness occur in a distinct context which appears to defy logic. For example, if people are afraid of the dark, putting on the light generally makes things better. In similar ways, there is the light of evidence in our understanding of dangerousness, but this knowledge does not appear to lower our fears, rather a pervasive belief in monsters and demons continues. These fears may feel very real to many people but are surely not the bedrock on which a modern public protection system should rest."
"There is a willingness to accept very illiberal measures and, in particular, to apply these to one particular form of offender (the sex offender) with only perhaps the terrorist suffering similar opprobrium. Brown (2010) developing Foucault’s work on the Abnormal (2003) suggests that rather than the sex offender being a monster and not one of us (O’Malley, 2000) he is instead the representation of ‘unencumbered human nature’; a product of the population itself rather than being apart from it. It is this Brown argues that both drives our fears and fuels our demands for viewing these offenders through the lens of dangerousness. In essence, we are afraid of ourselves."
"The UK has developed a public protection system predicated upon
formulaic risk assessments and bureaucratic classification of offenders
which leads to increased numbers within the ‘potentially dangerous’ category than arguably need be there.
The sex offenders’ register is a classic example. It now has over 37000
people registered but over 35000 of these are classified as Level 1,
which means single agency oversight (therefore by definition tending to
be lower risk, although not necessarily). The point is
that the overall number creates an impression of a massive amount of sex
offender risk, when the reality is inclusion on the Register can result
from a caution – in other words no criminal conviction. The Register
consumes resources; current numbers require at least 37000 annual visits
from the police, even at the lowest end of risk. Indeed, there were no
additional resources provided when this requirement was introduced by
the Labour government in 1997. The Register can provide a degree of monitoring but in terms of prevention is next to useless,
although may well assist in detection. Even when backed by live GPS
tracking, as I observed in South Korea, the system could track an
offender to the scene of a sexual assault but not prevent it.
Innovations such as the Register therefore offer pretence of protection
but which, in many respects, might be construed as ‘false reassurance’.
At the same time the Register’s very inclusiveness and size portrays an
impression of a huge problem which in itself justifies more intrusive,
restrictive and exclusionary measures. Thus it is hard to avoid the
conclusion that many of our so called preventive measures (based on risk
of harm assessments) are punishment by another name."
response of the prime minister to a recent Supreme Court ruling over
sex offender registration periods illustrates this very well. On appeal
by an offender subject to lifelong registration (which is triggered by a
custodial sentence of 30 months or more), the court decided that
continued registration should be determined by the risk posed by the
offender (judgement by Lord Phillips, 2010). The Prime Minister, as a
result, launched into a tirade against Europe and the ECHR (human rights
issues not applying to sex offenders of course), but reluctantly
conceded that the UK government would have to comply. However, he said
that these offenders would have to remain on the register for 15 years
before they could be risk assessed (but where is the evidence suggesting
15 years as the baseline for future risk?). He also indicated that
the police would undertake the assessments and that he doubted that many
would be deregistered; thus setting the (punitive) agenda well in
advance. In a recent article (Nash, 2012), I advocated that our
present system of automatic registration which is determined by the
sentence imposed, should be reviewed and replaced by individual risk
assessments. Here is another of those paradoxes where the government is
now to do what I and others have suggested (but with lifelong
registrants only), only to set a minimum registration period which is
arguably more about punishment than ongoing risk."
Wednesday, 23 May 2012
"'A reassurance con?' is a refreshingly candid canter through the fine mess we've created in the form of a supposed 'world-leading' risk assessment system lovingly known to us all as Mappa. With forensic detail he describes a burgeoning bureaucracy whose success is highly equivocal, consumes a vast amount of resources, has taken our eye off the ball and encouraged a false expectation on the part of the public."