There probably isnâe(TM)t a hotter political “hot button” these days than sexoffenders. The brutal murder of ten-year-old Holly Jones in Toronto in May has focused public attention on the issue yet again. Now,whenever someone with a conviction for a sex offense moves into an area, itprovokes a hue and cry.

It is understandable that people are angry and afraid. But while police,politicians and the media shamelessly exploit this issue for their ownadvantage, the truth is that the law-and-order agenda they are pushing is asham. Far from making life safer for children, it perpetuates the conditionsthat breed violence in the first place.

It is a sham because it doesnâe(TM)t address the problem — which isnâe(TM)t crime butmental illness. Only a deeply disturbed person would abduct and murder achild. Law-and-order is all about punishment — more cops, more prisons,longer sentences. In other words, it is all about imposing consequencesafter the damage has been done, after the child is already abused or dead.But punishment is useless in preventing crimes like this because you canâe(TM)tfrighten somebody back into sanity, no matter how draconian the threatened penaltiesare.

Holly Jones has been turned into a symbol for the latestlaw-and-order crusade — a national registry for sex offenders. Yet even bythe crude logic that characterizes public debate on this whole issue, thismakes no sense. The man arrested for her murder, Michael Briere, has nocriminal record, let alone one for sex offenses. So a registry would havebeen useless in making this arrest, just as it would have been useless in acase such as Paul Bernardoâe(TM)s.

By contrast, treatment programs work. According to Corrections Canada, therecidivism rate among sex offenders is 17 per cent, but for those offenderswho take treatment that number is reduced almost by half, to nine per cent. Andyet these programs are chronically under-funded, short-staffed and have longwaiting lists. If we shifted some of the billions to treatment that wesquander on law-and-order, we could reduce that rate even further and makelife safer for everyone, including our kids.

Of course some of these offenders are so deeply damaged that treatment wonâe(TM)twork. There are some mental patients who are that way as well, and societyat large has a right to be protected from them. But the proper place forsick people, whether they are offenders or not, is a psychiatricinstitution, not a prison. Warehousing them in jail, with inadequatetreatment or none at all, sets up the sickest of them to re-offend.

Beating up on a bunch of sick people, however, is an easy way to makeyourself look good. It sells newspapers, it gets votes, it makes peopleforget stories about police brutality and racial profiling. But it hasnothing to do with making sure that what happened to Holly Jones doesnâe(TM)thappen again.

Obviously treatment programs for offenders are only part of the answer. Thelarger question is why people become deranged enough to commit crimes likethis in the first place.

But “why” questions are unpopular these days. After September 11, 2001, anyone who tried toexamine the reasons for that attack was accused of condoning terrorism.Terrorists are evil, end of story. Sex offenders are monsters, end of story.

But this kind of wilful ignorance only serves to perpetuate the violence itclaims to abhor. Monster is a label, not an explanation. These peoplehaven’t fallen from the sky or crawled out of the bowels of the earth. Theyare sick people who have done monstrous things, but they werenâe(TM)t born sick,they were made that way.

And the bitter irony is that they were often made that way by being victimsthemselves — often, in fact, victims of sexual abuse. Most such victimsinternalize their pain and anger, and suffer from bouts of depression and anemotional numbness that haunts their lives. But it is hardly surprising thatfor a few, the bad stuff bottled up inside explodes in violent outbursts.Victims become victimizers, and so the cycle of violence becomesself-perpetuating.

Of course, this isnâe(TM)t a situation of one size fits all. Not every offenderhas a history of being sexually abused. But abuse can take many forms —neglect, abandonment, coldness, harshness. What is common in all these casesis deep scars that never heal, even though those scars may not be apparenton the outside for many years.

In a society that was genuinely committed to protecting children, the answerto this problem would be clear — end the conditions that breed abuse. Inother words, end child poverty, guarantee every child quality daycare andeducation, and every family a decent place to live. Such measures wouldn’tchange things overnight, but they would contribute immeasurably to breakingthe cycle of violence.

But the thrust of government policy is entirely in the opposite direction.

Child poverty is now at record levels: in Toronto, one of the wealthiestcities in the world, a third of all children are living below the povertyline. Homelessness is rampant, it is virtually impossible to survive onwelfare or working minimum wage, daycare is unaffordable for many andbillions in funding have been slashed from public education.

The prime victims of these measures are always children. We prosecuteparents for the Criminal Code violation of “failing to provide thenecessities of life”, but governments get away with it all the time. Theirsis the social abuse of children, and it is the motor force that keeps thewhole cycle of abuse, violence and punishment going.

In that light it is worth pondering a widely reported remark by Torontopolice chief Julian Fantino. As he was announcing the arrest of Briere, headded what clearly was meant to be taken as a heartfelt grace note for thewhole investigation: “Holly became everyoneâe(TM)s child the moment she wentmissing.” Yet no one (in the media, at any rate) noticed the unintendedirony — that it takes a brutal murder for a child to become “everyoneâe(TM)schild.” As for the hundreds of thousands of children living below thepoverty line, they are, for the powers-that-be, “nobody’s children” — unless, of course, one of them gets murdered.