Knowing when and where not to tell the truth is a vital part of growing up and maturing into a responsible citizen. It's all a question of balance, degree and appropriateness and we can all think of examples when some gloss on the truth would have been rather more welcome. However, no matter how gruesome or unsettling, probation officers are always on a mission to try and tease out the truth as a first step towards understanding the motivation for certain types of behaviour and before trying to get that person to change it.
This has always been particularly important where sex offenders are concerned because there is always a high degree of denial present. Over the years much of my time and effort has gone into making it possible for this often difficult and damaged group to talk openly about their desires and offending patterns, primarily as a way of forming a basis for work that will prevent further offending and the creation of more victims when they return to the community.
Accredited Sex Offender Treatment Programmes are now run widely throughout the prison system and in the community by Probation Trusts. Much has been achieved in terms of monitoring by both probation and the police as part of the Sex Offender Registration system, but I suppose it was always just a matter of time before some bright spark decided to use Lie Detector tests as a means of 'beefing up' the monitoring process. Trials have been running for some time in East and West Midlands probation areas with supposedly 'good' results, good enough indeed for the politicians to grab hold of the idea and decide to roll it out in England and Wales for the 750 most serious cases.
Now this raises a whole host of issues for me, not least the ethics of it. It strikes me as yet another step down the 'law enforcement' route and to be honest a procedure that probation officers should not be involved in. I really can't see how an officer can one minute be trying to get a client's confidence and trust, and the next be administering a polygraph test? Then there's the whole issue of whether it works or not? This evidence seems to cast doubts.
I think there's a much better way of protecting the public and it's an idea from Canada called Circles of Support and Accountability. It's long been recognised that sex offenders are often highly isolated when returned back into the community and this does nothing to help prevent a return to offending thoughts and behaviours. The ethos of this government-initiated charity sees each sex offender, the 'core' member, become part of a circle of volunteers, assisted for as long as is felt necessary by appropriate professionals. These circles are formed as soon as possible, ideally whilst the person is in prison, and can continue for many years and long past mandatory sex offender registration. Dame Helen Reeves, the former Chief Executive of Victim Support, describes the vision thus:-
"High risk sex offenders do not make the most welcome neighbours but this organisation recognises that committed, responsible support is the best way of ensuring the safety of local residents and the prevention of further crime. The fact that the supporters volunteer for this task provides a powerful message to the offenders that their previous crimes are acknowledged but that other people are willing to support their efforts for a better future."
I understand that the reconviction rates for core members is astonishingly low, both for sex and offending generally, with any worrying signs of a return to pre-offending behaviours dealt with speedily through recall or similar action. In essence a scheme that works, is cost-effective and enables both core member and volunteer alike to feel valued.
Just by way of illustrating the very different approaches described here, I was reminded of an interesting statistic recently. In the UK compliance with Sex Offender Registration is more than 97%, whereas in some US states it's as low as 38%. The reason is that over here offenders are not required to put a sign on their house or car advertising their status. I think it's worth investing in a nuanced approach like Circles rather than a very blunt instrument such as polygraph machines.