Not fit for purpose

In the panic over sex crimes, communists emphasise the need for treatment, not revenge. Eddie Ford comments

In recent months the media, particularly the press, have been going berserk about the criminal justice system. Alongside the ever simmering row about illegal or 'bogus' immigrants/asylum-seekers, we have had the chauvinist furore over "foreign criminals" - which saw John Reid describing the home office as "not fit for purpose". Now we have the reactionary campaign, inevitably led by the News of the World, to force 'the liberals' in the home office to do something about the "paedos" and "perverts" lurking outside and maybe even inside your local school - and god knows where else too.

The latest furore was ignited by the case of 24-year-old Craig Sweeney, who horrifically abducted a three-year old girl from her own home in Cardiff and then sexually assaulted her. We subsequently discovered that he had a previous conviction for indecently assaulting a six-year-old girl, and that the licence on which he had been granted early release from his three-year sentence had expired just two days before.

But what really upset many was the actual sentence that Sweeney received - that is, life with an 18-year tariff. However, due to the fact that he pleaded guilty - and has already spent a year in custody - Sweeney will be theoretically eligible for parole after he has served half his sentence, some five and a half years. Hence the furious newspaper headlines and stories - 'Paedo monster only gets five years' and so on.

Much to the annoyance of the judiciary - and many senior police officers - John Reid buckled under tabloid pressure and pronounced the Sweeney sentence to be "unduly lenient". He also announced that people deemed to be paedophiles were to be moved out of probation hostels situated in close proximity to schools. Furthermore, Reid informed us that he was sending a minister to the United States in order to "look hard" at the 'Megan's law' system of dealing with sex offenders - and that he had "asked the minister to study specifically the News of the World's 'Sarah's law' proposals on controlled access to information".

Naturally, the News of the World was cock-a-hoop. At long last, it might have thought, it was running the country - not the Guardian-reading, muesli-eating 'liberal elite' who ride roughshod over the decent common-sense views of the ordinary man and woman. Triumphantly pouncing on Reid's supposed "major u-turn", the newspaper declared that "after a six-year battle" it had "scored a massive victory in its historic crusade to protect Britain's children" from "paedophile monsters" and "child sex fiends secretly housed in bail hostels close to schools". In conclusion, the News of the World now believes that 'Sarah's law' is on "the brink of being introduced in Britain" (June 18).

Of course, 'Sarah's law' is a reference to Sarah Payne, who at the age of eight was adducted and murdered by Roy Whiting - he had already been convicted of abducting and molesting an eight-year-old girl in 1995, but was freed after doing just over two years of his four-year sentence. The circumstances surrounding Sarah Payne's grisly death were extremely similar to that of the seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed by Jesse Timmendequas - a child molester with two previous convictions for sexual offences - shortly after he had moved into the same neighbourhood as her family.

Accordingly, legislation was introduced that came to be known as 'Megan's law' - a term used to denote a system which requires the US law enforcement agencies to identify 'sex offenders' to the general public. Therefore parents are now meant to be informed when sex offenders move into their neighbourhood after being released from prison. Some states list offenders' details on the internet - so that parents can enter their own details in order to check if anyone on the register has recently moved in nearby. As for the offenders, they must register their address with the local police immediately upon release.

Obviously, 'Megan's law' takes different forms in different states. For example, in Louisiana the public has complete access to information on offenders and their movements - indeed, for a no doubt reasonable fee, one company in that state offers a service providing email alerts to families warning of sex offenders moving to homes near them. As for Washington, police officers can call at every house in the neighbourhood to warn people about an offender moving in. And in Oregon - quite scarily - sex offenders can be ordered to display a sign on their window, as if they were a plague victim.

On top of 'Megan's law', it is worth noting, there is also the slightly less well known 'Jessica's law' - named after Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old girl from Florida believed to have been abducted and killed in February 2005 by convicted sex offender John Evander Couey. This is a proposed law which would, if adopted, mandate more stringent tracking of released sex offenders - and as a sanction would actually slash federal grant money to any state that does not conform to the new sex offender registration laws. These proposals include the electronic tagging of convicted sex offenders for at least five years by strapping global positioning system devices to their ankles; ensuring that all offenders who sexually molest children under the age of 14 are put into a prison with a mandatory minimum sentence of 15-25 years; closing down all the loopholes in California's 'one-strike' laws; eliminating all 'good time' credits for sex offenders, ensuring that they are required to serve their entire sentence and will not be released for good behaviour; creating a 2,000-foot "predator-free" zone around schools and parks to prevent sex offenders from living near where children learn and play, and other such bureaucratic measures.

Obviously, looking enviously as it is to developments in the United States, it is not difficult to see why the likes of the News of the World are so keen to get something along the lines of 'Megan/Jessica/Sarah's law' introduced in the UK. Essentially an irrational 'naming and shaming' exercise, such an operation would serve to whip up a climate of moral panic. In such a paranoiac atmosphere, the authoritarian 'law and order' agenda - and rhetoric - of the populist media and on-the-make careerist bourgeois politicians becomes more seductive. And, fortuitously, the circulation figures of tabloid newspapers go up.

Communists reject 'Sarah's law' and the idea of 'naming and shaming' in general. Logically, it ends up in vigilantism and the lynch-mob mentality. We have seen this in the US, where thanks to 'Megan's law' at least five offenders have been murdered by vigilante squads - and numerous others have been forced to go underground, thus drastically reducing the possibility of them ever living a 'normal' life. Which in turn increases the possibility of them re-offending again. A vicious circle which just results in wasted lives.

We have seen intimations of this in the UK too. In 2001 the News of the World mounted a 'naming and shaming' campaign, publishing the addresses of a batch of convicted paedophiles, which resulted in several people being forced out of their homes. Some attacks resulted from mistaken identity, as people on several council house estates decided they would have to 'do something'. In the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth there were particularly ugly scenes, as putative lynch-mobs scoured the area looking for anyone suspected of being a "paedo" - often on no more than a word-of-mouth rumour. Shockingly, at the time, some left groups - notably the micro-group Red Action and the larger Socialist Party - attempted to see something progressive in this reactionary mobilisation 'from below', despite its irrationality, and despite the fact that it had been whipped up by the sensationalist, scaremongering press. Thankfully, the News of the World eventually felt obliged to abandon its campaign after it was criticised from all sides - including the police, who are less than enamoured by the idea of a 'Sarah's law', as they know full well that it will make the tracking of genuine or recidivist sex offenders a lot more difficult.

Perhaps most alarmingly of all for communists, the current brouhaha over "sex monsters" - just like over "foreign criminals" - acts to eat away at the principle of rehabilitation. Indeed, we believe that human beings - all human beings - are potentially redeemable. And, yes, that means someone like Craig Sweeney - even if he has committed a heinous crime.

Even Roy Whiting too? Perhaps. This is not because communists - to emphasis the point - would for a single moment wish to make light of the real danger that somebody like Whiting or Sweeney can pose. But what is equally as foul as these sickening acts is the abuse committed by newspapers that seek consciously to whip up hysteria and bigotry by scapegoating people who are - more often than not - victims themselves.

Yes, everyone instinctively sympathises with a child mistreated for the sexual gratification of an adult. But, as for the paedophile, he or she is regarded as the lowest of the low - not really human: a "fiend" or "demon", to use the putrid argot of the populist press. However, so often the abuser and the abused are in fact one and the same person. All available evidence - and hence all rationality - tell us that the majority of people drawn sexually towards children are those who themselves were in the same type of relationship as a child. Whiting was no exception. Maybe Sweeney fits into the same depressing pattern - we cannot say one way or another at this point.

Whatever the exact details and circumstances concerning Sweeney, we communists will argue for a system that places rehabilitation as its core - not revenge dressed up as punishment. As part of our programme for a different, more human, order, we call for measures of a totally different kind from those demanded by the News of the World - or, by the looks of it, John Reid. While the population must be protected from individuals suffering from dangerous disorders or psycho-social afflictions, we do not accept that such conditions are permanent or unchangeable - not in the vast majority of cases, at least.

People with such disorders must be treated, not simply locked up then forgotten - or 'named and shamed' and left to the tender mercies of an alienated lynch-mob.