“Hundreds of convicted sex offenders are missing” – How worried should we be?

Photo from the Guardian

Photo from the Guardian

Introduction

“Hundreds of sex offenders are missing” ran the headline in the Guardian on 10th March 2015 (it was covered in other news outlets as well). Of course, anyone who is not being supervised in the way they should be is a worry, and it would be horrific to be the victim of a known offender who was off the radar. Having said that, this is an example of how media outlets can mislead in a story to make people more scared than they should be.

 

Is 396 a big number?

Hundreds sounds like a lot, but is it? There are 396 people who are currently not complying with the registration requirements. The first point to note is that there are 46,102 ‘on the register’. In other words, the number missing are less than 1% of the total. What surprises me about that figure is how few people are off the grid. In any system there will be people who don’t comply, Of course that is a problem, but in assessing how newsworthy this is as a story, it’s worth asking what the numbers mean as a proportion of the overall figures.

 

How dangerous are they?

The NSPCC was quoted in the article as saying “Some of these offenders have committed the most serious of sexual offences against children“. It’s not clear whether this is referring to the people on the register as a whole, or just those missing. But either way, note the word ‘some’. How many is ‘some’? It could mean 300, it could mean 3. Earlier it was noted that “half of those on the register are offenders who have raped or sexually assaulted children“, does that help?

There’s good reasons for thinking that the profile of those missing will be different, but even if it is half the 396, then it may not be as concerning as it first seems. Take the case of a 15 year old boy who has factually consensual sex with a 12 year old girl who tells him that she is 15, which he reasonably believes (taken from G [2008] UKHL 37). He will be convicted of rape. Of course, he may be a danger, but most people would look at such a person, and be less concerned if they are among the missing. Similarly, any 15 year old who has factually consensual sexual activity with another 15 year old is guilty of an offence (in fact, they both are). Hopefully they won’t be prosecuted, but we know that some are.

So, without the profiles of those who are missing, it is hard to know how dangerous, or otherwise, these people are.

In addition, 97% of people on the Register have been assessed as ‘low risk’. It’s not a exact science, but the police would tend to err on side of caution for obvious reasons. If those are reflected in the missing, then it is likely that only 12 will not be classified as low risk.

 

Where are they all?

That’s where it gets a little bit more interesting. According to the Met, “London’s “diverse multicultural population” meant a large percentage of sex offenders were “either known or believed to be living abroad, having returned to their country of origin”. If the missing were distributed evenly throughout the UK then, as London is home to about 13% of people on the Register, there should be about 51 missing from the capital. In fact, according to the BBC, there are 167 missing in London. Is this huge over-representation due to the fact that there are more foreign criminals in London who have moved home?

It would be useful to know what percentage have moved abroad, but if the Met are right then this cuts back the number from 396. Even if a ‘large percentage’ is a third, this means that 55 or so are abroad. This won’t be limited to London either, there are foreign national elsewhere in the UK, and presumably some have left. It wouldn’t surprise me if a high percentage of the 396 are actually people out of the country.

These people are now listed as wanted and will be picked up if they try to return. If this cuts the number down to, say, 320, this makes the numbers look less bad. If someone is out of the country, then they are not a risk to people here (and there are provisions for police here to liaise with their home country). This ties into the next question …

 

Why are they missing?

It is pretty hard to go to ground completely if the police want to find you and are actively looking for you. In films, you can get fake ID, a new identity and all that, but it’s not so easy in real life – very few people have the skills or contacts to actually make that happen and evade capture. There will be a number of course where confusion between police has allowed them to slip through the net, some where the police have not looked hard enough, as well as some who are homeless and not in receipt of benefits, and possibly a couple who have deliberately tried to evade detection.

But, the simplest explanation for why many of these missing cannot be found by the police is that they have left the country and are not here to be found. What proportion are they? It’s impossible to know without a bit more information.

 

 Conclusion

Whenever there is a story like this, among the questions that it is always worth asking are; what the figures mean, whether it is a big number in real terms, what information is missing, and what the explanation for the figures are?

What is missing is any details of how many people who were previously missing were found because they committed other sexual or violent offences, as well as an analysis of the people who are missing.

To critically approach these questions is not to dismiss the seriousness of the issue, or the concerns of those raising this as an issue. But, in answer to the question of how worried we should be, perhaps the answer is ‘not as much as you’d think when you read the headline’.

 

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4 thoughts on ““Hundreds of convicted sex offenders are missing” – How worried should we be?

  1. As always, am interesting demonstration of how the media & authorities whip up concern in this area of law. Nothing gets people going more than a good ‘paedo story’.

    I would challenge the assumption made in the introduction however. There is little evidence that the SOR prevents or deters further sexual offences. There was little research to support its introduction and, in fact, academic research from the USA suggests it is a very expensive & flawed means of control. This is heresy in the ears of the safeguarding community but I would challenge them to cite their research. 2 – 3 home visits a year by the PPU, an annual visit to sign up and the maintenance of a file of bank details, etc will not stop someone intent on abusing a child. The existence of the SOR thanks to things like Sarah’s Law may make society feel safer but in reality I suggest it is a knee-jerk reaction to the moral panic so trumpeted by politicians, the media and the safeguarding industry.

    • Thanks for that. I’m aware of the issues (and did touch on that on my piece on the Sex Offenders Register for the UK Criminal Law Blog) and agree that the Register was introduced without an evidence base and may well be counterproductive in that it makes people feel safer on the twin (and false) assumptions that (1) if someone is on the Register they are not a risk and (2) the Register records everyone who is likely to commit an offence.

      I also suspect that the biggest single offence committed by someone on the Register is failing to notify, but I haven’t seen the data.

  2. More interesting is the number of serious offences committed by those who do comply with the register – 174 in 2013-4 – makes you wonder about the monitoring and even about the worth of the register – we spend millions each year maintaining it but to what end – nobody knows if it makes any difference at all. If we round up these missing 396 can we all breathe a sigh of relief? No of course not.

    Of those going abroad – why are they not stopped at the border as ‘wanted’ people? I suspect the police say they’ve gone abroad because it lets them off the hook of having to do anything about them – they probably have no idea where they are.

    In bureaucratic terms the register is a success – what other criminal justice policy has a 99% success rate?
    In practical terms no one knows what effect it is having.

  3. Pingback: Hundreds of police officers convicted in past three years – how worried should we be? | Dan Bunting - A Life in the Bus Lane

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