Where the US leads, the Blair government follows. Gerry Sutcliffe, a Home Office minister, was sent to the US recently by his boss, John Reid, to study Megan's Law with a view to introducing something similar here.
Megan's Law, fêted by the tabloids, is a profoundly unwise piece of populism. Named in memory of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old who was brutally raped and murdered in 1994 by a known paedophile, this federal law encourages states to publish information about sexual offenders, supposedly to help make children safe. Such measures are often suggested by bereaved parents immersed in the agony of their own loss; their motives are pure. Which is more than can be said for the politicians who leap on the bandwagon, given that so many experts agree that the law drives paedophiles underground, thus endangering the very children it is trying to protect.
Thanks to Megan's Law, you can search for US sex offenders on the internet by name or location. Type in a postcode and you can locate every supposed deviant in the neighbourhood, each represented by an icon. Click on one, and up pop the offender's details: name, address, and even a photograph.
Look at Louisiana's website (http://lasocpr1.lsp.org) to sample what Reid might be adopting. First, you have to click on a promise not to "threaten, intimidate or harass" anyone, which seems half-hearted, coming as it does after advice to the reader that the site provides "information regarding the reported physical whereabouts or location of convicted sex offenders, sexually violent predators and child predators".
Crimes against nature
I used the site to pull up "predators" living near my old office in New Orleans. A slew of names came up. The first person on the list, whom I will simply call Scarlet, is a young black woman. Listed as a sex offender, she is obliged both to register and to notify her neighbours whenever she changes address. She has a large red tick next to her name, indicating that she is "in violation of registration requirements".
Far from being a sexual predator, Scarlet is in fact a crack-addicted prostitute who pleaded guilty to "solicitation of a crime against nature" - typically, offering oral sex to an undercover cop. Further research reveals the reason for her violation of the registration requirement: she was murdered three years ago.
Reid would no doubt argue that his system would be more discerning, but Sutcliffe has said that the UK's list should include a 17-year-old boy who has sex with a consenting 15-year-old girl. Though the UK version may be different in some respects, the practice of notifying communities of the location of sex offenders remains at its heart, and it is this practice that gives the most cause for concern.
The tabloids and the government are spinning the story as "parents' right to know" versus the dangers of vigilantism - in other words, the victims against the paedophiles. This misses the point entirely. It does not take a trip to the US to realise that identifying paedophiles to their neighbours drives them out of town and discourages them from registering in their new location. An honest debate should recognise that children, too, are the victims of Megan's Law, which cuts sex offenders off from supervision and makes the anguish of another child virtually inevitable.
According to the Home Office, only 3 per cent of sex offenders fail to comply with registration requirements under the existing system. In the US, where all states now operate Megan's Law, the level of non-compliance is estimated to be eight times as high, according to the pressure group Parents for Megan's Law.
Reid's predecessor Charles Clarke was a populist in his day, but his criticism of Reid on this issue has it right. "I don't think we should respond to the tabloid media just by saying 'yes'," he said. "We should respond by saying: 'You have a legitimate concern about public protection and we are trying to address it.'"
Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents 36 of the prisoners in Guantanamo. He writes this column monthly. www.reprieve.org.uk or contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640