“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  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.
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’.