Sex abuse victims deserve better than media-driven policy

It’s easy to call for harsher punishments for child sex offenders, it’s another thing to secure them. Image from shutterstock.com

Child sexual abuse is a topic of extremes. We are never short of politicians and journalists keen to voice their disgust at offenders and their sympathy with victims. But substantive responses are few and far between. Instead, policy-making in this area is highly volatile, as media-driven politicians seek to trump this morning’s negative headline with a new inquiry or “crackdown”.

On Sunday, the New South Wales government announced it was setting up a parliamentary select committee to examine sentencing practices in child sex cases. This follows from a campaign by the Daily Telegraph for the introduction of harsher sentences for child sex offenders.

Premier Barry O’Farrell agrees, stating that the community expects sex offenders to receive “harsh punishments for their heinous crimes”.

Getting justice in sex abuse cases

It’s one thing to call for “harsh punishments” but it’s another thing to secure them. It is notoriously difficult to prosecute sex crimes, particularly those within the family. Victims are young, traumatised and unsuited to the stresses of the criminal justice system. Accused men are unlikely to plead guilty, which makes sense since conviction rates are low. Even if they are found guilty, appeals against convictions in child sex abuse cases in NSW have a high success rate.

So much for “harsh punishments”. Offenders have to be convicted first, and a parliamentary committee on sentencing options is not going to increase rates of prosecution. Even when convicted, many incest offenders do not receive effective treatment in prison when their sentences aren’t long enough, or when the treatment of violent sex offenders are prioritised over (typically non-violent) incest offenders.

Meanwhile, sending these men to prison will effectively bankrupt many of their families. Incest offenders often restrict and undermine the earning capacity of their wives as a method of control.

Cedar Cottage

It is probably no coincidence that the announcement of the select committee came out on the same day as a Radio National program on child sexual abuse, which drew attention to the NSW government’s decision to shut down the effective and comprehensive incest treatment program, Cedar Cottage.

Cedar Cottage is a pretrial diversion program for first time, non-violent incest offenders, which means that men who meet the criteria and plead guilty will avoid jail for two years of community-based treatment. It was first set up in 1989 to provide men with an incentive to plead guilty, and spare their kids and families the trauma of a trial with a low probability of conviction.

For over 20 years, Cedar Cottage got results. Not only did it increase guilty pleas, but it reduced reoffending by engaging men in intensive therapy that informed the counselling that Cedar Cottage gave to victimised children and their mothers.

This process often resulted in additional charges against the men over time as they began to own up to other acts and other victims. Meanwhile they had to keep working and supporting their families while living separately from them, strictly supervised in the community.

Men going through the program often complained that prison would have been easier; telling family and friends about the full extent of their abusing behaviour was worse. However, since it doesn’t involve prison, NSW attorney-general Greg Smith has declared that Cedar Cottage is out of step with community expectations and will be shut down.

Other sentencing options

The most recently available data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that three-quarters of those convicted of serious or aggravated sexual offences against children go to prison, and for an average of over five-and-a-half years. Research from the NSW attorney-general’s own office has found no evidence of a pattern of “trivial” sentencing in sex abuse cases.

However the wrath of News Ltd newspapers has descended on those judges and prosecutors who, in one-quarter of the cases above, use non-custodial sanctions such as Cedar Cottage against serious child sex offenders. Accordingly, the government has noted two potential sentencing alternatives to be considered by the select committee: mandatory sentencing, and antiandrogenic drugs (sometimes called “chemical castration”).

Mandatory sentencing legislation removes judicial discretion and ensures that convicted offenders receive a custodial sentence. Such approaches inflate prison numbers without reducing crime rates, so why would it work in relation to child abuse?

Antiandrogenic drugs reduce testosterone which in turn reduces sexual libido. These drugs are effective against men experiencing compulsive and pathological sexual impulses, but these are a minority of child sex offenders. Using them against men who don’t require them has been called “a return to the dark ages”. These drugs also have serious side effects including osteoporosis, heart disease and metabolic problems.

Some people might think that child sex offenders deserve whatever we can throw at them. But will these measures reduce reoffending? Will they provide victims with support? Will they aid in the identification of any other victims? Will they secure the financial and emotional well-being of their families? The answer in each case is no.

Instead, “harsher punishments” will motivate accused men to plead not guilty and drag the legal process out as long as possible in order to avoid being convicted, and many of them will be successful.

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