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Government response to sexual abuse and offending

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
Speech Notes

16 April 2004

Government response to sexual abuse and offending

Closing remarks to the ANZATSA Conference,
Centra Hotel, Auckland Airport
To be delivered at 12.30pm, April 17

Thank you for inviting me to give the closing speech at this conference.

The number of organisations and agencies represented here, both from New Zealand and abroad, is reflective of the widespread concern about sexual offending, particularly when such offending is against children.

This is a priority issue for the Government, and this conference has made an important contribution by enabling people to share and develop their knowledge about how we can better prevent offending and help the victims of it.

Helping victims rebuild their lives is essential as we try to minimise the ongoing hurt and damage caused by offending. Detection, prosecution, and treatment of sex offenders are also essential, because prevention of re-offending is the key to stopping more victims being created.

These are complementary fields and professionals who work with both victims, and offenders, are represented at this conference. The stronger the links between us, the more effective we can be together at tackling the overall problem.

The treatment of sex offenders and sex abuse victims are rapidly developing fields. I welcome the presence of international experts at this conference. It is important that we can tap into your expertise, as well as having the opportunity to share with you the progress we are making in New Zealand.

You will already have heard about some of the impressive work that treatment agencies are doing in New Zealand. The community based treatment programmes SAFE in Auckland and STOP in Wellington and Christchurch have been the subjects of a recent evaluation commissioned by the Department of Corrections. The evaluation concluded that these programmes had a significant impact on lowering recidivism rates amongst the offenders treated.

Outcomes of these programmes are consistent with, and towards the lower end of, recidivism rates reported in local and international evaluation studies. The recidivism rate of those who completed these programmes – around 5% -- was in fact half that of the untreated comparison group, and achieved similar results to the prison-based Kia Marama programme.

These community-based programmes are therefore making a significant contribution to reducing sexual reoffending in NZ. Along with the very effective prison-based programmes of Kia Marama and Te Piriti they have an essential place in the treatment of sex offenders in New Zealand. I congratulate all those who are working so hard and so effectively in this important area.

Current Government Initiatives

Sexual offending against children is an important issue for Government. I want to outline four recent government initiatives to provide a more effective response to the risks posed by child sex offenders.

The first is the Parole (Extended Supervision) and Sentencing Amendment Bill currently before Parliament. This Bill introduces an extended supervision regime aimed at managing the long-term risks posed by child sex offenders.

It will allow extended supervision orders to be imposed on offenders who have been sentenced to a finite prison sentence for a relevant sexual offence against a child under 16, and who present a high risk of committing further sexual offences against children once their sentence has been completed. Offenders subject to such an order will be monitored for up to 10 years from the end of their sentence.

The Department of Corrections will assess all eligible offenders to determine whether an application should be made before the end of the offender’s sentence for an order. Where an assessment indicates that an offender is of medium-high to high risk, the Department of Corrections will apply to the Court for an extended supervision order. The offender will be given notice of the application and have the opportunity to appear before the court and/ or be represented by counsel to defend the application.

Effectively there will be two levels of monitoring for offenders subject to an extended supervision order. For most offenders there will be a standard monitoring regime involving standard parole conditions and some special conditions. A smaller group of offenders will be subject to a more intensive monitoring regime, which may include more restrictive special conditions such as constant surveillance, by electronic and/or human means.

The Bill also contains transitional provisions that will ensure that orders can be sought for relevant offenders currently serving a sentence, or under parole or release conditions, as at the date of the Bill’s introduction (11 November 2003). This will ensure that the Bill covers offenders currently in the system who were sentenced before the Sentencing Act 2002 made preventive detention more widely available for those who require an indefinite sentence.

The second initiative is a trial project in Dunedin designed to develop a best practice model for inter-agency information sharing on child sex offenders. The objective of the trial is to enhance the Community Probation Service’s ability to manage the risks posed by child sex offenders in the community. The agencies involved include both justice and social sector agencies.

The trial has improved the ability of agencies to work effectively with child sex offenders. It has also impacted positively on work and communication between agencies in areas outside the scope of the initiative. However, an interim evaluation has highlighted two major limitations on the trial so far – the process by which agencies notify each other about matters relating to offenders (in particular Privacy Act constraints to disclosure) and the limitations imposed by the form of agency databases.

The Department of Corrections and Ministry of Justice are working together to address these issues. Some difficulties may be overcome through a less conservative interpretation by the agencies involved of the principles of the Privacy Act. Legislative amendment however might be required to clarify that the Privacy Act should not stand in the way of information sharing for this purpose.

This conference has canvassed the importance of collaboration and co-operation between different agencies dealing with sex offenders. As part of the Dunedin trial a “community safety meeting” initiative is being developed. The aim is to provide a more effective management tool for higher risk child sex offenders.

The "community safety meeting" model is based on current practice with Kia Marama graduates. It is envisaged that the probation officer, with the consent of the offender, will arrange a meeting for the offender, and all relevant parties including support persons, treatment providers and other relevant government agencies for the purpose of developing and agreeing upon a safety management plan. The approach will shortly be trialed in Dunedin. If evaluation shows it is a positive measure it will be extended to other areas.

The third initiative is the Crimes Amendment Bill No 2, currently before Parliament, which is the first overall review of the sexual crimes part of the Crimes Act since 1961.

The most significant change effected by the Bill is that sex offences will now provide redress for all victims and apply to all offenders, regardless of gender.

Currently some offences can be committed only by a male, or contemplate only a female victim. The vast majority of sex offenders are male, and the majority of victims are female. Nevertheless, there is a legitimate expectation that male and female victims should have the equal protection of the law. The Bill therefore proposes that all sex offences be expressed and applied in a gender-neutral manner, so that, for example, women will be able to be prosecuted for consensual sexual conduct with underage boys.

The final initiative is the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Amendment Bill, introduced to Parliament at the end of last year. The most important reform advanced by the Bill is the new measures it contains to combat the alarming growth in the trade of child pornography via the Internet.

While 10 years ago censorship laws were concerned mainly with books, films and magazines, offenders now use the Internet to access, exchange and store thousands of objectionable images in a way not previously imagined.

The Bill increases the maximum penalties for dealing in and possessing objectionable material. While the maximum penalties will be available for all objectionable material, child pornography is our first enforcement priority. This is reinforced by a provision in the Bill that child pornography will be treated by the Court as an aggravating factor at sentencing.

People who produce, trade or distribute child pornography will now face up to 10 years in prison. The current maximum penalty is just one year. People who knowingly possess child pornography may, when the Bill is passed, face up to two years' prison. Search warrants will be available for investigation of suspected offences.

The scale of internet offending is potentially huge. Operation Ore, launched some two years ago in the United Kingdom based on child porn site subscriber information gathered by the FBI, investigated over 7000 alleged subscribers. Over half of them were charged and just over 1200 have so far been convicted.

The investigation uncovered evidence of more than 100 children in the UK alone, aged from 2 to 14 years, being abused to provide images for those subscribers' gratification.

Child pornography is images of actual child abuse. The new and much tougher penalties for trading and possessing this sort of material reflect the abhorrence with which the Government and society regard these crimes.

These initiatives are important steps forward, but there is much still needing to be done before we can claim that a comprehensive and integrated response to sexual abuse is in place.

In particular:
- We need to do more to educate the public about the nature and effects of sexual abuse, to alert them to the initiatives being taken to address it, and to inform them of the actions that they themselves can take.
- We need better tools to enable us to identify the early signs of problematic sexual behaviour amongst children and adolescents, so that we can intervene with appropriate treatment before it is too late.
- We need to ensure that there are effective and adequately resourced assessment and treatment services for sex offenders both in prison and in the community.
- We need to ensure that victims, whatever their age, gender or culture, get the assistance and support they need.

This will require resources and it will require that government work with community agencies, such as those represented here today, to identify the right solutions.

I am aware that there has been discussion about the role that a comprehensive strategy on child sexual offending might play in leading the way towards a more effective, better-integrated system.

I will shortly be releasing an overall plan to reduce community and sexual violence. That plan will include the establishment of a Steering Group to oversee the further work that is planned to tackle sexual violence and to ensure that we select the right options to address the gaps identified.

That further work will include undertaking a comprehensive review of the capacity, resourcing and effectiveness of identification, assessment and treatment services for sex offenders, both community and prison-based, to assess whether there is an unmet need for more widely available services. Research will also be undertaken on improved techniques for the early identification of offenders, and the treatment needs of sex offenders.

The Action Plan and the Steering Group will make an important contribution to ensuring a strategic approach, as will ongoing communication and discussion of the issues including through conferences such as this one.

In conclusion, thank you once again for inviting me to speak to this conference. I am impressed with the work so many of you are doing to help prevent re-offending by sex offenders and to help the victims of sexual abuse. I look forward to working together with you to achieve that.

ENDS

All Phil Goff’s media releases and speeches are posted at www.beehive.govt.nz

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