The Chief Constable of Norfolk, Simon Bailey, says that men who view indecent images of children should not face prosecution unless they pose a risk to actual children. The reason, he says, is that officers are simply overwhelmed with child abuse cases, with over 70,000 reported every year, and an estimate – though how one estimates such a thing I have no idea – of an extra 40,000 such cases likely to arise out of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. The police, he said last year, were spending £1 billion a year on prosecuting sex cases, a figure which he predicted could rise to £3 billion by 2020.
Instead of prosecution, and in cases where there is no obvious threat to any children, Mr Bailey advocates arrest and treatment by way of “counselling and rehabilitation” instead of punishment. Such men could, he suggests, be placed on the Sex Offenders Register but they would not need to face a court.
Mr Bailey knows what he is talking about. He is the head of Operation Hydrant, the national body responsible for co-ordinating investigations into “historic” sex cases. He is no sex-crime softie. He recently crossed swords with Sir Richard Henriques whose report into the bungled Operation Midland investigation of Lord Bramall and others criticised him over the official Hydrant guidance that required all sex crime complainants to be referred to as “victims.” Under Hydrant’s overall guidance police have regularly brought the sick and the very old to court for offences committed decades earlier. Only last week another centenarian was ordered to appear before the Aylesbury Crown Court to answer allegations going back to the 1970s. Wiltshire police are even investigating the long dead Ted Heath. So gung-ho were investigations becoming that the CPS felt the need to issue the extraordinary guidance that:
“since deceased persons cannot be prosecuted, the CPS will not make a charging decision in respect of a suspect who is deceased.”
On the other hand, this is not the first time Mr Bailey has called for those who “merely” view indecent images to be treated as in need of help rather than punishment. In December 2014 he suggested something very similar, pointing out that the majority of those who viewed such images were unlikely to go on actually to abuse children.
He is to be congratulated for his courage in opening up a debate in an area in which to depart from the orthodoxy is to invite a torrent of obloquy.
The fact is, that in the seamy world of indecent images of children, there are degrees of nastiness. At one end of the scale lie truly disgusting images procured by almost unimaginable child abuse. Depravity of the most appalling kind is perpetrated on children and then filmed or photographed: as part of my legal work I have seen the results, and it never fails to shock. Anyone involved in the production of such material deserves, and usually gets, very long sentences indeed. At the other end of the scale lie sixteen and seventeen year olds sexting each other with technically illegal images, but in circumstances far removed from child abuse. Such youngsters are in fact unlikely to face prosecution, although the line separating adolescent foolishness from criminality is sometimes a little blurred. Nevertheless, this is one reason why the glib phrase “child abuse images” can be misleading. Indecent images of children are not necessarily images of child abuse, although of course they very often are.
Nor should anyone underestimate the harm caused by the distribution of such images. It is easy to imagine the distress that anyone, let alone a child, would feel to learn that pornographic images of themselves are being distributed in vast numbers around unknown internet users. There is a clear policing objective in trying to stop such traffic.
The vast majority of those prosecuted over possession of indecent images will have had nothing to do with the initial production of the pictures. Very often the defendant will be a man with no previous convictions, no history of sexual misconduct and in many cases posing no obvious threat to children at all. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (“CEOP”) suggests that the typical user of child pornography may be educated and intelligent and “well integrated into society.” In some cases he may have paid to receive the images, more often he will simply have searched for them, or perhaps swapped them with like-minded users. The discovery of his vice will ruin him, quite aside from any punishment that a court may impose. Some of them will go on to commit “contact offences” against children; but many will not.
It is to this group – those that view and download but do not produce or distribute, and who are not in close contact with children – that Mr Bailey’s proposal is directed. At a time when reports of sex crime are close to overwhelming the police, is there another way to deal with people who would probably never harm a child directly, but who are addicted to viewing child pornography?
It is all very well to insist that the police should prosecute everybody found in possession of illegal images, but even if it were desirable it is wholly impractical. It simply cannot happen. What is more, the attempt to do so is bound to draw resources away from other policing duties, including, critically, the protection of children at imminent risk of actual “contact abuse.”
Whenever some wretched individual is prosecuted for the possession of indecent images of children the most common response is to assert that the perpetrator is “sick.” Somewhat inconsistently however, those making the diagnosis tend to advocate long jail sentences which, it is said, are the only appropriate treatment for perverts. It is an odd way to treat the sick because one of the few things that we know for sure is that very little in the way of therapeutic treatment will take place when men are imprisoned for these offences. Once they are released they will not be reformed, and they will almost certainly have less to lose than before they were sent to prison in the first place. Imprisonment, as so often, will have failed to deter and failed to reform, and will have done so at great expense.
Mr Bailey’s proposal has many difficulties: “treatment” of paedophilia may not even be possible – although teaching techniques to control it probably is. “Counselling” seems a lame and inadequate response to the problem. It is far from clear what he means by “rehabilitation,” or who would be responsible for organising it; the most obvious candidate would be the Probation Service, which is itself struggling under unprecedented financial pressures.
It is very easy to denounce paedophilia and demand severe punishment for paedophiles; no-one ever made themselves unpopular by doing so. Yet when public feeling runs so strongly in one direction it is particularly important that policy makers at least consider alternative voices. Can we afford to prosecute men who pose no significant risk? The Chief Constable’s suggestion that prosecution is not the complete answer to a pernicious problem is too important to be simply howled down. It needs to be taken extremely seriously.
After all, if Mr Bailey is right, to ignore him would be a huge betrayal of our children.
This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily Telegraph on March 1st 2017