There has been a national crackdown on child sex offending in recent months, with NSW Premier Mike Baird announcing tougher maximum penalties and ‘standard non-parole periods’ earlier this year.
But NSW Justice Minister Troy Grant wants to go one step further, proposing the introduction of mandatory ‘libido-reduction treatment’ – also known as chemical castration – for convicted child sex offenders whilst in custody.
The radical procedure is already available in Western Australia and Victoria, where courts can make an order requiring a convicted child sex offender to undergo the treatment prior to their release into the community. In New South Wales, child sex offenders are currently able to opt-in to the treatment – but Mr Grant says that making the treatment mandatory is necessary to reduce the rate of reoffending.
What is Chemical Castration?
Chemical castration involves the use of anti androgen drugs to suppress a person’s libido and sexual appetite.
It is obviously less intrusive than surgical castration, which involves the physical removal of a person’s sexual organs – and, unlike surgical castration, the procedure is reversible once treatment is stopped.
The drugs are typically administered by way of a quarterly injection which drastically reduces testosterone levels in men, causing them to become impotent whilst they are affected.
The use of chemical castration has had a dark history around the world – it was first used in the 1950s to “treat” homosexuality and other forms of “sexual paraphilia” which medical professionals argued could be “cured.”
British mathematician Alan Turing, who famously cracked the Enigma Code, was one of many individuals who forcibly underwent the procedure during the 1950s; a time during which homosexuality was still considered a criminal act punishable by terms of imprisonment.
Tragically, Turing is believed to have committed suicide following the procedure, which rendered him impotent and caused other health problems – although sparing him a lengthy prison sentence. Turning was granted an official posthumous pardon by the Queen in August 2014 for his conviction of ‘gross indecency’ following a public backlash against the way he was treated by the very country he fought so hard to protect.
What is the Proposal in NSW?
A government taskforce has been established to explore the future of chemical castration in New South Wales.
The taskforce will comprise representatives from Corrective Services, the state government, Justice Health, NSW Health, the NSW Police Force, the DPP, the Public Defenders, the NSW Bar, the Law Society and six different victims’ rights groups.
A press release says that the taskforce will ‘review current anti-libidinal treatment practices within the NSW correctional system and consider whether they can be expanded and improved.’
In doing so, it will consider whether chemical castration should be introduced as a sentencing option similar to that already in place in Victoria and Western Australia – where ‘dangerous sex offenders’ can be ordered to undergo treatment prior to their release from custody.
Does It Really Work?
The NSW government has attempted to justify its position by drawing upon statistics which suggest that child sex offenders are highly likely to reoffend when they undergo the treatment.
In one media conference, Mr Grant stated that approximately 17% of child sex offenders reoffend within 2 years of release.
Despite the government’s support for chemical castration, there are doubts about its long term effectiveness.
Some argue that mandating chemical castration ignores the fact that 90% of child sex abuse victims are known to the offender – and that offences typically take place within families, where power dynamics rather than outright sexual desire underlies the offending conduct.
Maggie Hall, an academic from the University of Western Sydney’s school of social science and psychology, says that contrary to what many believe, true paedophiles comprise only a small number of child sex offenders. She says that most offending is ‘less about sex than it is about control and power’, and that chemical castration could only work on paedophiles who suffer from a psychiatric illness, and who want to change their behaviour.
These concerns have been echoed by victims support groups, who have raised concerns that offenders could ‘abuse the system,’ with some arguing that it would allow sex offenders to receive lighter prison sentences without truly addressing issues of ‘power and domination.’
Studies have also questioned the lack of scientific evidence to support the benefits of chemical castration, with one paper recently published in the British Medical Journal finding that ‘the lack of credible studies of anti androgen drugs is particularly striking given the prominence of “chemical castration” in public debates concerning the treatment of known perpetrators.’
Mandatory chemical castration also raises ethical and human rights questions, with representatives of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists stating that ‘[our] Code of Ethics states that psychiatrists shall seek valid consent from their patients before undertaking any procedure or treatment.’
In light of such concerns, one might hope that questions of effectiveness, rights and ethics are properly considered before making the treatment mandatory.