The notional victim

There is nothing new about community alarm when a serious sex offender is released into the community, especially when for whatever reason that person is believed likely to reoffend. Pedophiles are deemed always to be a continuing threat, and Dennis Ferguson is a prime example. I believe the furore surrounding Dennis Ferguson's whereabouts is unfounded hysteria, that for a number of reasons he is harmless, but that's another subject.

In the past week reports of the release of two rapists have raised in my mind the issue of community rights versus offender rights, and I am not alone. The first case is of Mark Terrence Woods, who in 1986 at age 24 broke into the Newcastle home of a 56-year-old woman and raped, stabbed and burnt her before taking her to nearby bush. There he raped her again, put her into a car boot and set the car alight. Twice as she tried to escape he pushed her back into the flames, and finally her stomped repeatedly on her head, stabbed her again and left her bleeding on the ground. Amazingly she survived, and she lives still in Newcastle, and she is afraid.

At times in his 24 years in jail Woods’ propensity for depraved behaviour caused prison authorities to transfer female prison guards and psychiatric nurses for their safety. And in 2005 a judge redetermining Woods’ life sentences to a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life noted that all the expert evidence agreed that Woods was at risk or very high risk of reoffending.

Woods has been released from jail into supervision because, it seems, it has been deemed that he could be offered no more treatment for his depravities in jail.

The other case was reported late last week by the Sydney Morning Herald and concerns the release of Graeme Allan Reed, who has been convicted of 10 serious sex offences involving five women on five separate occasions. In April a psychologist reported that Reed was at high risk of reoffending, that he has been predisposed to sexual violence against women all his adult life, and in 2009 Reed was described by another psychologist as ‘‘meeting the diagnostic criteria for sexual sadism’’.

The Crime (Serious Sex Offenders) Act 2006 empowers the Supreme Court to keep such an offender in jail for periods of up to five years at a time on the completion of the sentence if there is "a high degree of probability that the offender poses an unacceptable risk of committing a serious sex offence" without supervision and if adequate supervision is not available. One of the issues the court must bear in mind is community safety, and I question whether the term community safety captures well enough the notion of an individual's safety, the welfare of the next victim.

Should courts considering releasing serious sex offenders be forced to consider the next victim rather than an indeterminate mass known as the community? What increased risk to this notional person is acceptable? Should a serious sex offender deemed to be an unacceptable risk have any rights beyond jail?