Should registered sex offenders be allowed to change their names?
2 March 2023
By Donald Findlater, director of The Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s Stop It Now! UK and Ireland helpline
You might have noticed media coverage about how many registered sex offenders change their names. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s focus is to prevent child sexual abuse and we work with statutory and non-statutory partners to support all reasonable steps to achieve this goal.
We believe the UK’s system of sex offender registration is among the best in the world, both in design and application. It has good and scientifically-based risk assessment and management tools and a very high level of compliance by those on the register – currently close to 70,000 people.
In contrast, if we look at the USA where the register is public, compliance levels are significantly lower. This means tens of thousands of people required to register have gone missing and cannot be effectively assessed and managed, which represents a significant risk to the public.
How can we stop people sexually offending?
In the UK the prison and probation services deliver intervention or treatment programmes to reduce ongoing risk. These programmes, as well as ongoing probation service supervision, look to support the past offender to plan for and lead future good life. This element is recognised, internationally, as making a major contribution to desistance from offending.
Research evidence points to a settled address, work or other constructive occupation, friendships, family life, support with mental health as all making a difference to preventing offending in the future. As a child protection charity, we think that needs to be the priority. Research evidence also shows that the vast majority of convicted sex offenders are never reconvicted.
Of course, there are some individuals with previous sexual convictions who are intent on re-offending, which may be enabled by through changing their name. The risk assessment and management skills of registration police officers and probation staff are essential in identifying these individuals and ensuring an appropriate level of supervision, monitoring and even surveillance is implemented for this minority on the sex offender register.
How are people on the sex offender register managed?
As stated, some on the sex offender register will change their name as part of their attempt to build a better life and not offend in future. This may also involve changing address, employment or social groups. They may also change their name as a way of protecting their family from the stigma of their identity. The BBC Shared Data Unit (that first launched the story) found that almost 1,500 registered sex offenders notified police forces of lawful name changes over the last three years. That is exactly as it should be – part of their complying with their registration requirements.
Of course, mechanisms have been put in place by the government to prevent foreseeable risks, including those associated with a name change. The failure of a sex offender to tell police of a name change or a change of address within three days carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. Once the police are notified of a name change – as in the nearly 1,500 cases – their details will be updated on the Violent and Sex Offenders Register and the Police National Computer.
Under the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) a prospective employee must declare all previous names and provide documentary proof to support the change of name. The proper and constructive use of references from previous employers is another safeguard in this process of recruitment that assists in sifting out unsuitable candidates. In addition, most registered sex offenders will be barred from working with children or vulnerable adults, and face prosecution and imprisonment if they seek work in such regulated activity. Their employer also faces prosecution if they choose to use a barred person work in regulated activity.
Can it be a positive thing for people on the sex offender register to change their name?
One of the essentials of treatment and preventing further offending is to help people build better lives after the offence. This could be through assisting lifestyle changes, helping people with employment, housing, addiction or other mental health issues.
Changing a name can be part of that process as it can help past offenders move beyond their previous offending lifestyle. They are often highly stigmatised and in some circumstances are vilified in their local community and may want to consider changing their names as one way to help move on from their past behaviour.
So, perversely, given the high level of compliance with requirements of registration currently achieved in the UK, it could be that a denial of a name change could serve to increase the risk of some who are seeking to lead a better life. That said, just as registered offenders are required to notify police of an intention to travel abroad, it would seem appropriate that they are required to notify in advance a plan to change their name rather than being banned, and that mechanisms are put in place to prevent any name change without endorsement by the police.
Understanding who offends can help us all prevent child sexual abuse
The sex offender register currently comprises nearly 70,000 individuals. The National Crime Agency estimates that between 550,000 and 850,000 people pose a risk of sexually abusing children.
An exclusive focus on registered offenders, who are being managed by the police and other agencies, could prove a dangerous distraction when parents and carers need to pay attention to the behaviours of anyone in close contact with their children both online and offline. By far the biggest risk comes from people who are not on the register rather than people who are on it. There are warning signs which we can all be alert to and these can be found on the Parents Protect website.
Where a member of the public has a concern about potential child sexual abuse, contacting the police (including through making a request under the Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme) is an important next step to take. If it would help to discuss the concerns confidentially then they can call the Stop It Now! helpline – just as 7,500 people did in the last year alone.