Should All Paedophiles Who Watch Online Child Pornography Be Spared Jail?

14/03/2017 11:59 GMT | Updated 13/03/2018 09:12 GMT

Britain's most senior child protection police officer Chief Constable Simon Bailey has caused outrage by suggesting that paedophiles who look at child pornography online should not face criminal charges.

He suggests that paedophiles who access child pornography on the internet would be better dealt with through rehabilitation and counselling programmes, and jail time should only be considered for the most dangerous offenders who have access to children and are directing abuse online. On the surface, this proposal sounds rational, but there are several problems with it.

The first is that there is no 'cure' for paedophilia, and the current programmes on offer to help paedophiles effectively control their urges show very little signs of success. At the moment, there is only one programme in the UK which appears to be reducing reoffending rates, though it is not 100% successful or available to everyone, and is still in development. As things stand, very little exists, and even less is on offer to effectively prevent paedophiles from accessing child pornography, and going on to abuse children in the flesh.

Although exposure to child pornography does not always lead to offending in the real world, there's a fine line between those who watch child abuse online, because that is what child pornography is, and then go on to abuse in person. The National District Attorneys Association of America, says that "In light of the documented link between individuals who view child pornography and individuals who actually molest children, each child pornography case should be viewed as a red flag to the possibility of actual child molestation." And in a report on child abuse and online child pornography, John Carr, who was the founding member of the United Kingdom Home Secretary's Internet Task Force on Child Protection, stated, "Many pedophiles acknowledge that exposure to child abuse images fuels their sexual fantasies and plays an important part in leading them to commit hands-on sexual offenses against children."

If that is the case, how can Bailey even consider allowing all paedophiles who access child abuse images to walk free, when we clearly don't have any effective processes in place for preventing these paedophiles from making their abusive virtual fantasies a reality?

Like so many child welfare policy proposals in a post Brexit world, it really all boils down to money. Bailey has gone on record saying that the police don't have the resources to cope with the vast volume of child sexual abuse reports they receive. Reports have soared by 80 per cent in the last three years, with police receiving an average of 112 complaints a day and more than 70,000 complaints relating to child abuse a year. The nation's Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse is also making an enormous amount of work for the Police, who are preparing around 40,000 reports in connection with the Inquiry at the moment.

To justify his position, Bailey goes on to say that this initiative would allow the force to tackle "dangerous" paedophiles who are actively seeking out and exploiting children with a view to sexually assaulting them. This completely misses the point. If we only focus on jailing those who have already raped and assaulted children, we will never be able to prevent these assaults in the first place if we don't target those paedophiles who are at risk of offending, and who are also potentially dangerous. Living in a world where we currently have no proven nationwide schemes for preventing paedophiles from reoffending, whether it's for watching child abuse online or physically assaulting children in the real world, the only option we have is jail. It offers the one thing nothing else can at the moment - public protection.

Bailey's policy also misses another crucial point about accessing child pornography online. It has been legislated against precisely because it is a form of child abuse. The law is there to try to reduce the demand for this kind of content. Sending out the message that paedophiles who access child abuse images and videos won't be jailed will only fuel demand for child pornography. The knock-on effects of a policy like this are terrifying, leading to an increase in child trafficking and slavery, child abuse and ultimately, child deaths.

Baliey's policy proposal would involve placing paedophiles who access child abuse images on the sex Offenders Register. He claims that this would effectively manage paedophiles, but what does that really mean? Short of forcing each offender to wear a tracking device, very little monitoring of these offenders would in reality, take place. There would be plenty of time for a convicted paedophile to continue accessing child abuse online, or even assaulting a child.

Until we can assess the level of risk each paedophile caught with child abuse images poses, and find proven ways of preventing paedophiles from accessing child abuse images and assaulting children in the real world, we should think twice before removing what is currently the only barrier we have to protect children from unthinkable harm.