A place for paedophiles?

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Last night, the BBC’s excellent Louis Theroux tackled a topic generally avoided by analytical journalism. Louis’ film crew spent a considerable time in Coalinga Mental Hospital in California, documenting the programme the hospital has in place for the most serious sex offenders in California. There was a caution at the start that viewers may find aspects upsetting. This was an understatement of epic proportions. The programme throughout was disturbing but what it filmed shows how important it is consider these issues thoroughly. Our instinctive squeamishness gives the tabloid press space to disseminate misinformation.

Louis Theroux - San Quentin

Following the programme, I believe there are at least 5 major problems with the Coalinga scheme.

1. Double punishment – A noticeable feature of all the patients/inmates was their age. It was apparent that all had served long jail terms and their stay in Coalinga was being used as an alternative to release. I do not believe such a scheme would be possible in an ECHR jurisdiction. It seems the men were only told at the end of their jail term that instead of release they were obliged to stay at Coalinga.

2. Confusion of purpose – The California system works on 2 incompatible principles. When the offenders are sentenced to prison they are deemed to be personally culpable for their actions. Yet when it comes to their release they are being diagnosed with a mental condition which makes it unacceptably likely that will reoffend. If the second finding is correct, it presupposes that the offender was not sufficiently capable of resisting the urge to commit the initial offence(s). This is a perfect example of the system having a bob each way to ensure the greatest possible punishment.

3. Preoffenders – If, as the scheme suggests there are identifiable sexual disorders of the mind, why are they not seeking to discover members of the general population with these disorders? It seems the scheme has already determined that people with these disorders are unsafe to live at large. Why is the system restricted to those who have already committed an offence.

4. Effectiveness –  the findings of the scheme suggested that very few people are ever ‘cured’ of these sexual disorders. I am extremely sceptical that this offending pattern is caused by any clinical disorder. The failure of the scheme to ‘cure’ any but a handful of offenders seems to support this view.

5. Why sex offences? – The perhaps suprising aspect of criminal justice figures is that rates of recidivism for sexual offences is lower than almost any other category of offence. Surely these ‘rehabilitation’ schemes are targetting the wrong offences?

Tragically, despite the many obvious flaws, the Coalinga scheme has an undoubted appeal to it. The programme was shocking and the offences ‘treated’ at Coalinga destroy our most basic sense of justice. Many who watched the programme will clamour for Coalinga-style institutions to be rolled out across the UK. For my part I am confident this would never happen but it may raise awareness of how we monitor our most serious offenders on their release from custody.

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