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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK


Health

Psychopath plans: The reaction

Ashworth hospital is rumoured to be being considered for a psychopath unit

Mental health charities and civil liberties groups warn that proposals to detain psychopaths indefinitely could lead to innocent people being locked up.

But probation officers say they believe the proposal is a deliberate ploy to ensure those who have been convicted may never be released.

John Wadham, director of civil liberties group Liberty, said: "Locking up people who have committed no criminal offences, especially for long periods, is wrong. "Mental health experts do not agree about the basis of this illness, have difficulty in deciding whether or not a person is suffering from it and have no accurate way of deciding who is or is not a danger to the public.

"There is no doubt that some innocent people who are no danger to the public will be locked up."

But a spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) said he thought the proposal was unlikely to be followed through, mainly because of the cost of building new units.

"If the estimated number of 2,000 people is true, that would require around 10 new units at a cost of about £45m each," he said.

"Plus there would be planning objections from local people which would cause MPs nightmares. It could take a generation before they are up and running."

NAPO believes Home Secretary Jack Straw will eventually settle for more research into psychopaths and indeterminate sentences for those already convicted and deemed still a risk to the public.

"If he had just gone for this in the first place, it would have been seen as outrageous to lock up people for life, but this way civil liberties groups will think they have won a victory," said the spokesman.

Matt Muijen of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health said he thought money was not the only block to the plans.

Legal concerns might also mean a less strident document, he said.

He expects a discussion paper, setting out a range of options.

More research

Charities are also concerned about lack of consensus over the definition of psychopathology and its treatment.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship (NSF) says the early signs of personality disorder are similar to depression and schizophrenia and people could find themselves excluded which could exacerbate their mental illness.

It is also worried that people locked up will not be given the care and treatment they need.

"We don't want the units to become a dustbin," said the spokesman.

Mental health charity Mind wants more research into personality disorder and "a more considered approach" before legislation is pushed through.

Chief executive Judi Clements says risk should be the prime factor in determining if a person goes into the units, rather than diagnosis.

But the Royal College of Psychiatrists says dangerousness is very difficult to predict.

"It might well be necessary to detain 50 people for several years in order to prevent five to 10 serious crimes such as homicide," it stated.

It is "strongly opposed" to legislative changes to allow people with psychopathic disorder to be detained against their will if they are deemed untreatable.

And it calls for well-designed clinical trials to establish whether psychiatric and psychological treatment can change psychopaths' long-term behaviour.

Marjorie Wallace of mental health charity SANE welcomed the government's "brave" stance in tackling a problem which she said others had shirked.

However, she warned: "We do not want to make a social/medical loophole into a legal nightmare by taking away people's rights."

She also emphasised that the number of people affected would be very small.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) supports new indefinite sentence for dangerous offenders who have committed a violent or sexual offence.

But it is against the proposal to lock up people who have not been convicted of a crime.

Paul Cavadino, NACRO's director of policy, said: "Locking up people who have not offended would be a bridge too far.

"There is a real risk of massively over-predicting dangerousness and of detaining indefinitely people who would not have gone on to commit serious crimes."



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