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Catch-22: Where should the Government house sex offenders?

Not two years ago, Parliament amended the rules governing supervision of high-risk sex and violent offenders on release from prison – and already we can see these rules are simply not protective enough.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

In three recent cases, the Department of Corrections has housed newly freed convicted paedophiles in accommodation next door to, and in one case on the same property as, children. Local parents have had to plead through the media to get Corrections to reconsider such inappropriate accommodation. They were not consulted, simply told the men were now in their midst.

This is not fair on such families and not fair on the men, who cannot hope to reintegrate and rebuild their lives in an anxious and hostile community.

What our system still cannot address is that they will never integrate, because without constant supervision – which the law still too often denies them – they cannot be relied upon to refrain from reoffending.

One prisoner-support campaigner labelled the subsequent relocation of a Lower Hutt-resident offender as “mob rule”. It was nothing of the sort. None of these offenders has been subject to intimidation or harassment. We are fortunate in New Zealand not to have developed a tradition of physical victimisation of ex-prisoners. The Government this week wisely reaffirmed that new legislation to facilitate an up-to-date sex offenders’ register will not be a public document. Vigilantism helps no one.

However, we are entitled to expect a much higher level of management of released prisoners deemed a reoffending risk. That’s what we thought Parliament had achieved with the law change following the horrific case of Blessie Gotingco, raped and murdered by convicted child-molester Tony Robertson in 2014 while the authorities floundered to find ways to put him under super­vision, knowing his reoffending risk.

One obvious remaining problem is that there’s practically nowhere Corrections can rehouse a sex offender that is not close to families, parks and schools. There’s confusion over how to measure the prescribed minimum permissible distance from a school: on foot or as the crow flies? It remains unclear whether those on supervised release are legally in detention, their prospective lodging therefore subject to a special resource consent.

Corrections has inadvertently been set up to fail. So have the released prisoners. However unpalatable it is, we must accept that some sex offenders appear, for reasons we still know too little about, to be permanent predators – all too often their compulsion centring on children. Experts agree on one thing: they won’t reform, or at least refrain, without adequate support. But Corrections’ record in getting adequate supervision for the riskier releases is hit-and-miss.

In theory, Corrections should apply for a permanent protection order in respect of high-risk prisoner releases, mandating 24-hour supervision. Always uncertain whether the court will grant such an extreme order, the department may too often opt for the lesser protection, which allows for only a year’s constant monitoring and is non-renewable.

Some released offenders, like the Lower Hutt man, have fallen awkwardly between the old conditions of supervised release and the new rules. After 20 years’ jail for three different instances of offences against young children, this man had been securely housed upon release under the old system, and kept under constant supervision for the past 10 years. In an unintended Catch-22, since he had not reoffended in that time, he became eligible for release under the new rules, but only under the limited supervision order conditions. This was despite still being clinically assessed as at high risk of reoffending. He will cease to be under 24-hour supervision come April 2017.

Again, this is not fair on us, and not fair on him.

Those who charge nimbyism should consider how parents feel, knowing every time members of their family walk around the neighbourhood, a paedophile may be fixating on their children.

It is beyond belief that Corrections advised parents near the Lower Hutt offender’s residence to modify their behaviour, including by moving a preschooler’s paddling pool.

Talk among MPs and local authorities has centred on the “Beast of Blenheim” solution devised for Stewart Murray Wilson, whereby high-risk releasees could be accommodated in separate housing within the grounds of a prison or other secure institutional property. Secure, sheltered hostels are another constructive suggestion.

It’s true that children are at statistically higher risk from family or friends than from a stranger. But that hardly lessens society’s duty to manage known risks.

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