Public alerts may backfire, experts say
By Jen Ross
Canadians are increasingly driving released pedophiles out of their communities, publicizing their names, descriptions, photos and addresses in the hopes that such exposure will shield their children from harm.
But experts warn that such public alerts may do just the opposite, in fact encouraging pedophiles to reoffend.
"We know that when pedophiles are under stress, they are more likely to relapse," says forensic psychiatrist John Bradford, who has treated thousands with the sexual disorder. "If we persecute them, we are making the problem worse, not better."
Changes to provincial legislation in recent years have legalized public alerts and closed privacy loopholes that once made it hard for justice officials to track criminals and notify the public about high-risk offenders in a community.
Most provinces can now issue alerts, save Quebec, where privacy laws still prevent any group from doing so. Ontario passed the Community Safety Act in October 1997, which gave police the power to publicize the name, personal information and photograph of such ex-convicts upon their release.
But even victims' rights groups, which support the right to know, say the public can overreact to such alerts.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Steve Sullivan, president of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, a Belleville, Ont.-based advocacy group. "It can offer limited protection if it's not overused, but in some cases they actually increase the chances of people reoffending because it pushes them underground and they leave their supports behind."
Others say such alerts are necessary to protect children.
"Otherwise, we're putting pedophiles out there and children are sitting ducks," says Carrie Kohan, founder and president of the Calgary-based group Mad Mothers Against Pedophiles. She says her daughter was targeted by a three-time convicted pedophile who moved in next door when she lived in Dawson Creek, B.C., two years ago. "When we bring a spotlight on them, their opportunity to victimize children decreases."
But that spotlight can also fuel cruel vigilantism.
Don Wadel is executive director of the John Howard Society of Ottawa, which helps ex-convicts to reintegrate into society. He says alerts there have brought physical attacks on pedophiles, vandalism, and they have been driven out of their community, making it harder for them to get treatment.
Wadel was helping two pedophiles released in Ottawa to restart their lives last month, but the community was notified about them and the hounding became so severe they fled to Edmonton. One is back in jail for violating the conditions of his peace bond -- he moved without notifying police. The other has since left the city after the community was notified.
"One hundred per cent of the time it's been used it's turned out badly," Wadel says of public alerts. He says as a result of growing public vigilantism, some sex offenders haven't been able to make it on the outside and many have attempted suicide.
Royal Ottawa Hospital psychiatrist Bradford says one pedophile he treated was so afraid after a public alert that he felt he had to commit an offence just to get back into prison and away from the angry mobs. But despite the risks of public notification, police say they are being issued more frequently.
On Aug. 2, Edmonton police issued a public alert before the expected statutory release of pedophile Karl Toft, who has admitted to abusing more than 200 boys. Although Toft was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan after a last-minute review by the parole board, city police didn't wait for the decision before putting out the alert.
Police spokesman Wes Bellmore said they did so because if Toft had been released, they did not want it to come a day late.
"Clearly, what these people have done is so heinous that people want revenge," says Wadel. "Well, they go to prison and are punished. Alerts may be immediately satisfying to some, but they won't protect a community in the long term."
When photographs of high-risk sex offenders are publicized, schools are put on alert and children are warned not to talk to strangers.
However, federal studies show that 89 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim.
Bradford concluded an eight-year study of recidivism among released pedophiles last year. He found that 13 per cent will commit a new sexual offence within eight years. With psychiatric and pharmacological treatment, the risk of reoffending drops to as low as five per cent.
Bradford supports some community notification for the small percentage of pedophiles who cannot be rehabilitated, and serves on one of the few community-based committees in Ontario that decide whether to issue such alerts. The problem, he says, is that many communities have been using blanket alerts.
The recent trend has been mirrored by tougher legislation. In 1997, a new category of "long-term offenders" was created, giving police sweeping powers to monitor certain ex-convicts for up to 10 years after their release from prison.
This new type of sentence applies to long-term convicted sex offenders who are deemed at high risk to reoffend by a judge. Conditions can include staying away from children and schools and keeping police aware of changes of address. If they violate their conditions of supervision, offenders can face additional jail time of up to 10 years.
Since August 1997, Correctional Service of Canada says 97 people have been sentenced as long-term offenders. Fourteen have completed their sentences. None have violated the conditions of their supervision so far.
While some say these tougher laws raise serious ethical concerns, the vocal majority see them as necessary.
Kohan was granted a peace bond against her pedophile neighbour in 1999, but he went into hiding before police could serve him with it. She says that's why Canada needs longer prison sentences coupled with a national registry to track released pedophiles.