Criminal Neglect. Why Sex Offenders Go Free|
by Sylvia Barrett And Dr. W. L. Marshall
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by Chris Whynoti
AT FIRST GLANCE Criminal Neglect looks like the kind of sensationalist book that I tend to avoid. The black cover has the title stamped urgently across the top half in large, blood-red lettering. Underneath there are two authors listed, one a "Dr.," the other an "award-winning journalist," reminiscent of those books where an expert with an axe to grind gets together with someone who can write prose speedy enough to evade our critical filters. Books about conspiracies and scandals. Books that titillate with promises Of lurid details safely sampled under the umbrella of righteousness. Manifestos Of outrage.
And in some ways Criminal Neglect fulfils most of these promises. But there is a difference between this book and others with similar covers: this one deserves to be read by everybody who can get their hands on it. The information and analysis it contains are vital to Our understanding of issues that involve us all -- whether we want to admit it or not.
More and more these days sexual crimes feature in the news. And more and more they linger. Whether they concern priests or recently paroled offenders, judges or day-care workers, the stories refuse to go away. It is no longer enough to read the compellingly prurient headline and the two-paragraph treatment on page 10. Because the survivors of sexual crimes are speaking out in increasing numbers, because groups are out there willing to support them, because the true extent of the problem is becoming inescapable, we are paying more attention. We have inquiries and government reports, news specials and heavy lunchtime conversations.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by it all, to feel bewildered and hopeless in the face of this enormity. Part Of the problem is that the stories we have been told and continue to tell ourselves -- about who commits these crimes and why, about who the victims are, and about what can be done, just don`t work any more as explanations.
Sylvia Barrett and William Marshall provide us with a way to put what is happening in perspective. Criminal Neglect is an effective primer about sexual crime and the response of the criminal justice system. Dr. Marshall has worked in the field at the Kingston Sexual Behaviour Clinic for 20 years, and this book reflects both the pragmatism that such experience leads to and the optimism that is necessary to continue the work at all.
The book begins with the horror stories, case studies of men whose names you will recognize from the news: Duane Taylor, Melvin Stanton, Allan Sweeny, Clifford Olson, and others. Here we see the Canadian criminal justice system at work. All these men had been in custody before they committed their most famous crimes. All had been clearly identified as high risk, and all were at some point released inappropriately. What comes out of these descriptions of bungling is a picture not of individual incompetence, but of an incompetent system. Seen from the point of view of these cases, the central operating philosophy of Correctional Services is "cover your ass." Good people are caught up in a system of division and distrust where success means not catching flak. It is a system that helps make the world a more dangerous place for you and me and our children.
Criminal Neglect goes on to look in some detail at the character and genesis of sexual offenders and at the effects of the crimes on the survivors. It also provides us with a program of answers: what is an effective treatment program, what should be done in the jails, what should be done about pornography.
While the details of the devastating effects these crimes have on the survivors is heartbreaking, it is the chapters on the offenders themselves that many people might find the most difficult. Barrett and Marshall refuse the easy categorization of offenders as monsters, as "them." This is no liberal, "bleeding heart" story about good boys who were led astray, but rather
a clear and honest depiction of the kinds of choices these men made and the context within which they made them. It would be easier to simply call them monsters: having done that our responsibility would lie only in trying to avoid them. Seeing them as real human beings complicates our responsibilities considerably, but it also leaves room for hope.
Stylistically, the book suffers a bit from having a split authorship. At times there is some slippage between the first and third person -- usually corresponding to a slippage between description and polemic. There are moments of repetition, too, as if each chapter was written to stand on its own.
But the analysis is clear and sharp throughout, and usually resists the temptation to flatten or oversimplify the issues. Pathology does exist. And to some extent sexual crimes are motivated by sexual urges -- or at least urges that are manifested sexually. But Barrett and Marshall make it clear that these pathologies and deviances are nurtured in a particular context that carries specific messages about men, women, and children. Sexual crimes are centred on issues of power and control. Such an analysis -- deeply informed by feminist thinking -- may not explain all of what is going on in cases of sexual abuse, but it is clearly the starting point if we are to understand any of it.