What do these 2 stories from today’s media have in common?
A CONVICTED pedophile claimed he had turned his life around after realising his “abhorrent tendencies” needed to be channelled into creative activities, a Perth court heard yesterday.
Paul Thompson, who escaped from a Western Australian prison then continued to prey on children in other states before moving to Bali, made a plea for compassion in a letter he read from prison to Perth Magistrates Court.
Thompson, who lived in Bali under an assumed name and ran a children’s cricket program, was under the suspicion of Australian Federal Police for the sexual exploitation of Balinese children when Indonesian authorities deported him to Perth last month. …
Magistrate Robert Burton accepted that Thompson was a changed person who had “done it tough”. He sentenced him to serve a further four months in addition to the 23 months left on his sentence when he escaped.
A “respectable” man who became friends with parents before he molested their young children has been jailed for seven months.
Peter Cooper, 44, who has three children of his own, was called “the nicest bloke on the street” and “Mr Nice Guy”.
He was known as a jovial man who opened car doors for women and carried their shopping. But he was a sexual predator in disguise who assaulted four children, including a seven-year-old girl.
The mother of one of the victims said yesterday the sentence was “disgraceful”.
“He’s going to spend less than two months in jail for every child he molested _ it’s a joke,” she said.
“He should be jailed for years, not months.” …
He also admitted to groping a girl’s breast at the local swimming pool. The girl asked him to stop but he touched her another two times.
But magistrate John Birch took into account Cooper’s psychiatric report in sentencing.
The report said Cooper had very little chance of reoffending and that he had good prospects for rehabilitation.
Mr Birch also reduced the sentence by 30 per cent because of a guilty plea and Cooper’s remorse.
If you guessed that the common factor was extraordinary and inexplicable judicial leniency, go to the top of the class.
In the case of magistrate Birch, I can’t help wondering about that psychiatric report supposedly concluding that the offender “had very little chance of reoffending and that he had good prospects for rehabilitation”. In fact, as this excellent Slate article (from which I lifted the title to this post) explains:
… [K]nowing what we do about recidivism rates for pedophiles (recent studies show that they are lower than previously believed in the short-term, but still hovering at 50 percent over a 25-year “career”) we must choose between lifetime involuntary confinement, or the cost of ongoing monitoring.
What was it about this particular serial child molester that makes him a lower risk than the norm? I suppose we can’t know for sure without reading the report. But I wonder whether magistrate Birch had the figures on pedophile recidivism brought to his attention, and I wonder whether the psychiatric report was tendered by the defence or arranged at court order to be done by a neutral expert. It makes a huge difference. Like other expert witnesses, psychiatrists are “guns for hire”, and defence lawyers always shop around for a “defendant-friendly” psychiatrist. They’d be stupid to do anything else.
Leaving aside the patent inadequacy of the sentences in these two particular cases, there’s the wider question of how we should treat serial child sexual offenders. The Slate article canvasses the issues in some detail:
If sex with children is truly the product of freely made moral choices, then we should deal with it through the criminal justice system. But if it is a genetically over-determined impulse, an uncontrollable urge nestled in our DNA, then punishing pedophiles must be morally wrong. As science¢â¬âand culture¢â¬âincreasingly medicalizes bad behavior, finding a neurological component to everything from alcoholism to youth violence, we run the parallel risks of either absolving everyone for everything, or punishing “criminals” who are no guiltier than cancer patients.
What science has revealed about the moral/medical roots of pedophiles is, of course, ambiguous. What is clear is that the binary choice laid out above is an oversimplification. The medical community, which started to view pedophilia as a disease rather than a crime in the 19th century, has amassed evidence that at least some violent and antisocial behaviors have genetic links and signposts. But researchers have been unable to isolate a biological cause for pedophilia, or even to agree on a personality profile. Not to mention the terrific confusion within the medical community in defining what this “disease” really involves. Until a few years ago, for example, the DSM-IV¢â¬âthe Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders¢â¬âdefined pedophilia as a disease only if the sufferer’s “fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” In other words, a non-impaired, remorseless pedophile was apparently perfectly healthy. …
In a thoughtful essay in Reason, Thomas Szasz urges that pedophilia is ultimately still a moral failure regardless of its biological roots: “Bibliophilia means the excessive love of books. It does not mean stealing books from libraries. Pedophilia means the excessive (sexual) love of children. It does not mean having sex with them.” The crime, he argues, is not the psychological impulse, but the willingness to give in to it. But this conclusion assumes an answer that science is still uncertain about: whether for some pedophiles, the impulse to molest has become a pathology. If that is the case, pedophiles can’t have the criminal intent necessary to want to commit a crime, and that mens rea is the cornerstone of our criminal law.
Assume, for a moment, that we are sophisticated enough to embrace this ambiguity, to accept the likelihood that the reality is complicated, and that both chemistry and morality are at work in the creation of a sexual predator. Studies by Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky suggest that mental illness really falls along a continuum¢â¬âthat criminals are not “sick” or “evil” but some intricate combination of both. What, then, is the moral and proper approach to their acts?
My own answer is fairly straightforward. This behaviour has elements of choice and calculation in a least a fair percentage of cases. Hence crime rates for such offences are likely to be susceptible to a deterrent effect if the likelihood of detection and significant punishment is substantially increased. That deterrent effect is hardly likely to be assisted by sentences of 4 and 7 months being imposed on significant serial offenders.
The second element of an effective regime includes incapacitation. There’s simply no doubt that long-term incarceration of these offenders ensures that they don’t molest children while in prison; as such it’s a highly effective crime reduction strategy. Although it may well be prohibitively expensive to lock up all child sexual offenders and throw away the key, it certainly needs to be seriously considered in the case of persistent long-term offenders. Paul Thompson (the first offender mentioned above) fairly clearly falls into that category, despite the magistrate’s bizarre and inexplicable observation that he “was a changed person who had “done it tough“”.
The third element involves ongoing monitoring, chemical treatments (sometimes called “chemical castration”) and counselling after release from prison. The Slate article essentially plumps for this as the author’s preferred option. But it isn’t that easy. Research studies show that chemical castration (using drugs like depo provera) is only effective when used in conjunction with counselling, and that both are effective only for offenders who willingly co-operate with the treatment regime. Mandatory depo provera/counselling orders imposed on unco-operative offenders simply won’t work, so basing a sentencing regime wholly or even primarily on those measures is impractical. Nevertheless, a regime involving significant custodial sentences as a matter of course is likely to increase the number of offenders willing to submit to depo provera/counselling orders as a way to shorten prison time.
Even then, judges and magistrates need to know that these types of orders must involve submission to ongoing treatment over a very long period of time (until old age), and be given the power to impose such orders:
One of the most comprehensive studies was carried out by Meyer, Cole, & Emory (1992). They compared recidivism rates of 40 convicted sex offenders treated over a period of years with MA, group and individual psychotherapy, with recidivism rates of offenders who refused MA therapy, but received psychotherapy. Only 18% of the treated offenders reoffended while on MA, but 35 reoffended after treatment stopped. Altogether 53% of offenders treated with MA reoffended- the same as the rate of recidivism in the psychotherapy only group. This suggests to me that MA is effective only as long as it is being taken, and the effects wear off when treatment ceases. However, a more recent study (Kravitz, et al., 1996) has suggested that testosterone levels take longer to return to baseline levels in older patients, indicating that the treatment may be more effective in these patients. Several studies have also shown that long term, low dosage maintenance with MA inhibits deviant sexual function, but has no effect on normative sexual function (Gottesman & Schubert, 1993; Kravitz, et al., 1996)