Earlier this month the BBC reported on an investigation they had conducted into removals from the Sex Offenders Register. The results showed discrepancies in the numbers of applications for removal which had been accepted by Police forces in different parts of the country; some forces were approving most applications, some rejecting most. What does this mean for public protection?
The Sex Offenders Act (1997) introduced notification requirements for those convicted of a sexual offence. Those who had been convicted of an offence, on having completed their sentence, had to notify their local police force of their place of residence and any travel plans they had. This would allow the police to monitor them more easily and so contribute to public safety. For offenders who had received less severe sentences, the requirement for notification would lapse after a number of years, but any offender who had been sentenced to imprisonment for 30 months or more would be required to continue notifying police for an indefinite period. The Sexual Offences Act (2003) extended the notification requirements, with offenders now needing to provide more information. Those that notify have their details updated on a central database, which also records those who have not been convicted of crimes, but whose behaviour is a threat to the public.
In 2010, a challenge was brought to the Supreme Court by an offender subject to notification requirements for an indefinite period. The offender felt that the requirements were a disproportionate imposition on their right to a private life as they meant the offender was unable to travel freely and faced the danger of their offences being disclosed to third parties. Importantly, as the requirements were indefinite and there was no mechanism to appeal them, the offender was still subject to these impositions even after they believed they had stopped posing a risk to the public. The Supreme Court agreed; while they were happy with notification requirements, as their purpose in protecting the public legitimately outweighed the difficulties they caused to offenders, they were not happy with their indefinite nature. The Court reasoned that, as the purpose of the notification requirements was to reduce harm to the public, offenders who no longer presented harm should not be forced to comply with them.
The government at the time were very upset by this decision, but did introduce changes to the law which allowed those who were subject to indefinite notification to appeal. If their local Police force agreed that they no longer posed a danger to the public, they could be removed from the notification regime.
The BBC story: how concerned should we be?
As individuals are now able to appeal, the BBC looked into the results of those appeals. In some Police force areas, many appeals were successful, in others very few were. These discrepancies appear surprising: if risk is being evaluated in the same way in different places, it seems odd that some forces were accepting more appeals than others. The discrepancies make it possible that risk is not being evaluated in the same way, and so in some force areas offenders were being taken off the register who would be considered a risk were they in another force area (and that individuals were staying on the register in some areas when they would have been removed were they living somewhere else).
One thing to note is that the small number of appeals to each force makes it hard to be sure of this conclusion. It would be more surprising if there weren’t any variation – forces will be receiving appeals from different offenders, and some forces will have more appeals than others from offenders who still pose a risk – and the small number of applications in each force area means that this variation between them will look quite stark.
We should also note the way in which notification fits in with other public safety arrangements: successful appeals are from individuals who, at a minimum, have served a sentence, have been in the community for 15 years, are not subject to any other ongoing monitoring such as multi-agency public protection arrangements, and who are not subject to Sexual Harm Prevention Orders or Sexual Risk Orders. That is, they are individuals already not considered to be a risk by other parts of the public protection system. While there may be differences in how forces decide whether an individual should be relieved of notification requirements, there will be no difference in these central aspects of the decision.
TDI’s work centres on the question of how, as a society, we can reduce the harm of sexual offending. What is interesting to us about the BBC story and the reaction to it is the way that the Sex Offenders Register is sometimes considered as an end in itself, rather than as a part of a wider set of structures. Notification requirements are not a magic bullet which will always keep us safe; if they were to operate in isolation from other arrangements and interventions in the lives of offenders, they would be quite useless. Reducing the harm of sexual offending is not something that can be left to the Sex Offenders Register alone but which requires inter-agency co-operation, awareness of risk on the part of those managing public spaces, attention to the diversity of offenders and their needs, and an understanding of the contextual factors which make offending more or less likely. These are areas we have explored over the last 20 years, and which are still a central part of our work today.