You don't have to be a believer to say amen to Wanganui Catholic priest David Bell's opposition to community leaders' plans to hound paroled sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson out of town.
Mayor Annette Main's call to shun him was not a message Christians could adopt, said Monsignor Bell, adding that those who are threatening his life are really lowering themselves "to the same level as the person we are dealing with, Mr Wilson himself".
Today, as Wilson begins three years' parole within the grounds of the local prison, rabble-rousing locals like former mayor and talk-back stirrer Michael Laws have opened a new front and are now trying to starve him out of Wanganui, by encouraging every shopkeeper in town to issue a trespass notice, forbidding him from entering their place of business.
Whether you can trespass someone who has done you or your business no harm is a moot point. But for Mr Laws and his tar-and-feather mob, that's hardly the issue. In a former age, they'd have been the ones readying the faggots to burn the local witch or volunteering to carry the burdensome ailing widow out into the woods to be devoured by wolves.
Instead of whipping their community into a state of unnecessary panic, Wanganui's politicians would have served their people better by highlighting the advice of experts like Victoria University clinical psychologist Tony Ward, who argues that at the age of 65 Wilson is unlikely to reoffend. Professor Ward says "the reoffending rate for very high risk people over 60 is about 6 per cent".
He also rejected the scare-mongering scenarios being painted. He said that Wilson "in the past had quite elaborate plans and plots. He just doesn't pounce on people". With the stringent parole conditions in place, he is unlikely to have the opportunity.
Professor Ward says the best way to rehabilitate sex offenders is to keep them in the midst of other people where they can be watched and given support. "Social rejection and antagonism actually makes it much less likely that they can become socially responsible."
As the Parole Board, the Corrections Department and the courts continue to fluff around with last- minute tinkerings to a proposed "reintegration" plan, the "what ifs" come leaping to the fore. What if Wilson hadn't had two hopeless alcoholics for parents? What if the psychiatric institutions where he spent a long stretch of his teenage years had been able to do more about his "personality disorders"?
Then there are the what ifs once he started his 21-year incarceration for a horrendous catalogue of sexual offences. What if a programme had been set in place on entering prison to prepare him for his eventual "reintegration" - or in his case, "integration" into society? Instead, Wilson was refused a place in in-house treatment programmes for sex offenders or even any counselling, because he wouldn't admit to a psychologist he was guilty. What if the jail-based counsellors, instead of shunning this obviously very damaged person, had bent their rules and seen it as part of their job to assist him over that "guilty" hurdle.
Of course even if they had, that wouldn't have dampened down the lynch mob waiting for his eventual release. It's not just a Wanganui phenomenon. Last Friday in Turangi, a petrol bomb was thrown through the front door of a released paedophile's temporary residence. He'd been placed there a week before by the Corrections Department as a condition of his extended supervision order, after serving his full eight-year sentence for crimes against Aucklander teenagers. The chair of the local safer community council, Mary Smallman, was quoted as saying that known paedophiles had shifted to Turangi in the past without incident but that the Wanganui hysteria had worked people up.
Just what solutions the vigilantes have in mind I fear to ask. One thing is for certain, if it involves further incarceration and controls, it will be expensive.
In California, for example, sex offender parolees have to wear a GPS anklet at all times. On Halloween night, the police run Operation Boo, which bans the parolees from decorating their homes, leaving any house light showing or offering candy - even though there's no evidence of any increased risk of sexual molestation on trick-or-treat night. Last year, homeless sex offenders had to report to "a designated area" from 5pm to 10pm.
As part of a hardline approach to crime in the 1990s, several American states locked up sex offenders in "treatment" facilities after their jail sentence ended. These new facilities are seen as constitutional as long as their purpose is treatment and not punishment. It's costing New Yorkers $216,000 a year for each "patient" and Californians, $213,000. Across the US, the costs for running these non-jails has reached more than $600 million a year and rising. Is this the cost trail we really want to go down?
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