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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Should juries be told sex offenders' pasts?
Mr Justice Owen and members of the Judiciary
Juries could be entitled to be told about a defendants previous convictions, if a proposed shake-up of the court system goes ahead.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said the reforms of the rules to child sex and theft trials would put victims "at the heart of the justice system".

At present juries are rarely told of any previous convictions for fear of hindering a fair trial and human rights groups are concerned that if the plans are implemented miscarriages of justice will increase.

Do you think juries should be told of previous convictions in child sex abuse and theft cases? Do you think this will affect the right to a fair trial?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.


The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received:

SUGGEST A DEBATE
This topic was suggested by Sue from Herts:
Should juries have the right to know about the criminal past of a person standing trial?
and Martin Bell, UK:
Should juries be allowed to hear about a defendants previous conviction for a similar alleged offence ?

Definitely, it is a critical factor in deciding the character of the defendent. Judges should however be allowed at their discretion to prevent such disclosures in individual cases if they believe it will prevent a fair trial.
Dominic Elliott Smith, Nottingham, England

If the length of the sentence was correct in the first conviction then we would not have this debate. Therefore we should be thinking about why so many are re-offending. This will lead us into the pity the poor (innocent) criminal of the corrupt system/string 'em up debate. Oh dear we are back where we began.
Chris, North London

This proposal is pandering to the lowest common denominator of public opinion
Jeff, Newbury, UK
This proposal is pandering to the lowest common denominator of public opinion. Any case should be judged only on the merits of the evidence presented, or it will not be a fair trial.
Jeff, Newbury, UK

The comments posted here so far have mostly given jurors themselves very little credit. Just because a juror knows about a defendant's past history doesn't mean the police need no other evidence! Character profiling should be used as circumstantial evidence only - no competent juror would send someone to jail with no other evidence than their past record to 'prove' their guilt. In reality, though, the vast majority of sex offenders are repeat offenders, so profiling is a valid piece of evidence and should be admissible in court.
Chris, London, UK

No, plain and simple. Convictions are made on the surety of the evidence relating to the case.
David Johnson, Belfast, UK

Withholding deatils of previous similar convictions is a relic of an old paternalistic system
Colm Nugent, London
As someone who has appeared before many juries in a professional capacity, I am sure that juries can distinguish between the relevant and irrelevant when it comes to evidence. Withholding deatils of previous similar convictions is a relic of an old paternalistic system designed to restrict the juries' knowledge of all facts, in case they may be 'led astray'. Either we trust the jury system or we don't. We can't trust it 'just a bit'.
Colm Nugent, London

What is the difference between informing a jury of previous convictions and informing a jury that the accused was seen in the area at the time of a murder? Either of these pieces of information taken in isolation could lead to a miscarriage of justice. It is the jury's job to consider all the information and decide on guilt. Information on past convictions is simply one of the many weights that can be placed by the juror onto either end of the scales of guilt.
Tim, Swadlincote, England

We cannot have a system where a juror is made even remotely aware of an accused's past. This is the route to conviction by reputation. The police are all too ready to charge on reputation and the fact that a charge has been brought is often enough to sway a juror. Revealing past history would be another means by which the press could lynch many more innocent people. The only fair way for justice is to give complete anonymity to the victim and accused. We have far too many trials by media in our so-called free society. Far too many lives have already been ruined by the callous reporting of our gutter press. Information given to a jury on the grounds of the press conception of abhorrence will fill our jails with more wrongly convicted subjects.
Gerry, Luton, UK

Absolutely. Finally the victims have a chance. Our justice system is a disgrace. Let's hope this shows it turning a corner. Repeat offenders need to be dealt with swiftly and harshly.
Chris , Portsmouth, Hampshire

It would be very dangerous to tell the jury of previous convictions. It would then be a case of the accused having to prove his innocence.
Richard Watson, Ipswich

No. It is easy to say that once a threat always a threat. But particularly for those who have been acquitted of a crime or who have been incorrectly accused of such a crime, there is a serious danger that a jury, upon hearing previous convictions, will automatically convict a person. This goes against the principles of trying a case on the facts of the case as they stand. Innocent until proven guilty is still and should remain the benchmark against which try people.
Rachel, London

If past history is relevant in sex abuse cases, and I agree that it is, then surely it is equally relevant in cases of assault, burglary, vandalism and any other type of unlawful behaviour. But can't you just imagine the "human rights" lawyers gearing up for another lucrative attack on common sense at the taxpayers' expense?
Bryan, Edinburgh

I think the judges should know of past convictions of child abuse and theft at their trials. Even if it does put them at unfair risk, the victims of their original crime will not forget what has happened to them. For child abuse, the key should have been thrown away the first time anyway.
Ian Mc, NW, England

This is a tough one as there are already thousands of innocent people in prison. Thanks to DNA testing, many are walking free again having lost decades of their lives to "the system". As a juror, I would appreciate being able to judge a criminal in context to how they had spent the rest of their lives prior to the crime in question, but I would also be concerned that they would be unfairly judged and written off as a "lost cause", then found guilty regardless.
Carolyn P, Philly, USA

Far too much is done to weigh the scales of justice in the direction of the offender
Jane Wilson, Texas, USA
It's about time! Far too much is done to weigh the scales of justice in the direction of the offender, and it's about time this was redressed. These kind of sex offences are the most horrible, evil crimes, and are usually carried out against innocent children. As a mother of 3, I want to send a clear message to paedophiles that not only will they be caught, they will be sent away for life, and if that means trampling all over their "human rights" - then so be it.
Jane Wilson, Texas, USA

If a jury is told that someone has a previous conviction, there is no way that person can have a fair trial. It is simply not possible for the human mind to perform an objective analysis in this situation. People will not be judged on the events in question, 'beyond reasonable doubt', but on their heinous past. This does not serve victims at all. If the wrong person is convicted, that does not mean that justice has been done. It means a person that did not commit the crime is convicted, and the real criminal is still out there! What it does do though is increase the number of convictions delivered by the court. Politically, a shrewd move for a government looking beyond the coming election to the next one.
Daryl, Exeter, UK

Jury's should NOT know about previous convictions. Each trial should be based solely on the evidence at present. To include other offences is to prejudice what should otherwise be a FAIR trial. Just because someone has a previous conviction does not mean that are guilty of the one they're being tried for.
Iain Alexander, UK

Condemning the person to be tried over and over again for crimes in their past
Jonah Horowitz, Cincinnati, United States
If you tell the jury about the previous convictions of a defendant for any crime then you violate the principle of innocent until proven guilty. You are basically condemning the person to be tried over and over again for crimes in their past.
Jonah Horowitz, Cincinnati, United States

By telling the jury of previous convictions are we assuming that the punishment of prison does not reform? I always thought that once a person is convicted, punished then released they had paid their dues and their slate was effectively wiped clean (or as clean as it could be). If this is not the case what is the point in the punishment or why were they released.
Andrew D, London, UK

What's worse - letting some guilty go free, or locking up someone who's innocent?
Wendy, UK

If someone has a record of child sex abuse, surely we must be asking what on earth they are doing out of prison in the first place. Lock them away for life and then this debate will go away too. These people have no place in society.
Alex Nagler, Barcelona, Spain

Another victory for mob rule, thanks to this silly populist of a Home Secretary
Frank, Cambridge, UK
The police must be laughing. Now, instead of building up a body of evidence for a case, all they need to do is cite a defendant's "previous" and he can get put away. No judicial system is perfect, but we must learn to accept this awkward fact rather than pandering to tabloid scaremongering. Another victory for mob rule, thanks to this silly populist of a Home Secretary.
Frank, Cambridge, UK

A person's previous criminal history is as relevant to the case currently being tried as any other evidence being presented. It provides a perfectly legitimate indication of the persons mentality. It's down to the jury to look at all the evidence presented and make a judgement accordingly. This should be the case in all crimes !
Al H, EU

I have sympathy with the notion of "victim's rights", however I think the current proposals represent a slippery slope. The courts are there to administer justice at the heart of which are the notion of 'innocent until found guilty' and the right to a fair trial. Allowing evidence of previous convictions could well change the nature and balance of our judicial system - and not necessarily for the best.
Fiona, Glasgow

This bill will undermine rather than enhance democracy
William Young, Aberdeen UK
This measure is extreme right-wing unwarranted, unneeded and downright dangerous. As the UK is built on trust and law and order this bill will undermine rather than enhance democracy. The centuries old age that the UK introduced of "not guilty until proven guilty" will now be lost for ever and we will become little more than a third world dictatorship. I only hope that Scots Law is exempt and we Scots will show the world that fairness and impartiality is far better than a quick fix to please middle England.
William Young, Aberdeen UK

Doesn't this ruin any chance of a fair trial?
Chris, Bristol

I get very worried when politicians start to meddle with the justice system. I don't have much sympathy with sex offenders, but it's no good having one banged up if he didn't do it and the real perpetrator is still out there. It's well known that after a sexual assault the police visit people with a record. Each case in court should be tried on the evidence and not on whether a particular person fits the bill. If this reform goes ahead how long before other crimes are dealt with in the same way. How does it go "innocent until proven guilty". I can imagine a juror saying to himself well there isn't much evidence, but he did the same five years ago so he must have done it (mustn't he?)
Barry, Milton Keynes

It will also make criminals think harder about their actions
Cath Davis, Leigh, UK
Yes they should as a great part of a court case is to judge someone's character as well as their supposed actions, so knowledge of their previous behaviour is vital. And as for mistakes being made because of this knowledge, mistakes are made right now and I would rather a known past criminal risk being locked up unnecessarily than be wrongfully let off. Perhaps it will also make criminals think harder about their actions if they know a crime could come back to haunt them again and again.
Cath Davis, Leigh, UK

Of course they should be told and of course it will affect the right to a fair trial but lets stop messing around with these losers!
Jon, London

There are 2 sides to this story. If the jury is being asked to decide guilt or not for one particular incident, (i.e. was the accused there at that time, was he/she seen to abuse someone?, etc.) that's one thing, but if the question is ' is this person capable of doing such a heinous thing at any time,' then previous convictions must come into play. Lock them all away and throw away the key, both for the safety of the rest of the vulnerable in society who cannot defend themselves against such things, and partly for their (the convicted) own safety. Most of the people I have known in situations like this have an overwhelming desire to kill the offender to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Adrian, MK

All juries should be told the defendants entire history in every case.
Martin, England

So often victims are the last ones to receive justice in the court system
Emily, Minnesota, United States
Yes, I believe this should occur. So often victims are the last ones to receive justice in the court system and by allowing this to occur it will move victims to the forefront where they belong.
Emily, Minnesota, United States




SEE ALSO:
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19 Feb 04  |  Norfolk
Woolf attacks justice reforms
16 Jun 03  |  Politics


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