LONDON – Rapists and pedophiles who can convince police they have reformed will be removed from a tough regime that demands they register their whereabouts with authorities for the rest of their life, the government said Wednesday.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she had reluctantly agreed to change the country's rules and allow sex offenders in England and Wales to apply to be removed from the national Violent and Sex Offender Register.
Under the regime, all those jailed for at least 30 months over sex crimes are placed on a national database for life and must inform authorities of changes of address and each time they plan to travel abroad.
May said that, following a ruling by Britain's Supreme Court, offenders in most of the U.K. will be able to request to be removed, but only 15 years after they are freed from jail.
Police will consult with probation staff and likely doctors and mental health experts before ruling on an individual's appeal, but May warned she would "deliberately set the bar for those reviews as high as possible."
If rejected, offenders would need to wait five years before making a new appeal, May's ministry said.
Canada, which has a similar national database to Britain, imposes restrictions on offenders for 10 years, 20 years, or for life, dependent on the severity of their crime.
Britain's Supreme Court ruled in April that some 20,000 sex offenders in the U.K. currently monitored under the rules must have a chance to overturn their restrictions.
It follows court hearings on two cases last year — including a challenge by an offender who was aged 11-years old when he was jailed in 2005 for the rape of a six-year-old boy. His lawyer argued that as he matures as an adult, the offender should have the right to appeal against his monitoring.
"The government is disappointed and appalled by this ruling — it places the rights of sex offenders above the right of the public to be protected from the risk of re-offending," May told the House of Commons.
Debate over the rights of sex offenders in Britain echoes difficulties encountered in the United States to create a nationwide database of abusers, authorized by Congress in 2006 as part of the Adam Walsh Act — named for a Florida boy who was abducted and murdered in 1981.
Individual U.S. states impose different standards on how long offenders should be kept on abuser lists, though federal law sets a 15-year minimum requirement for the least serious sex crimes, up to a lifetime requirement for the most grave.
Progress on a national database has been hampered by human rights concerns and legal challenges over flaws in the state-level registries that will be the basis for the U.S-wide list.
The U.S. national database is intended to be separate from the better-known registries of convicted sex offenders, which U.S. states make publicly available on the Internet. Details of the British and Canadian lists are available only to law enforcement, prison and probation officials.
However, Britain also has a version of the U.S. Megan's Law — allowing parents to make discrete checks with police to confirm if those with access to their children have convictions for sex offenses.
Most other European nations have chosen not to compile national sex offender registers, citing potential infringements on civil liberties, though since 2008 some German states have introduced a private database of abusers accessible only by prosecutors and police.
In Scotland — which has a separate legal system to England and Wales — offenders are granted an automatic right of appeal after 15 years, and have cases ruled on by judges, not police.
The Supreme Court's ruling has stirred debate about the extent to which sex offenders can reform, but also provoked fresh worries in Britain over judicial meddling in government policy.
Last week, the government conceded it would need to change a centuries-old law and allow most prisoners the right to vote in national elections following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
"How completely offensive it is to have, once again, a ruling by a court that seems to fly completely in the face of common sense," said Prime Minister David Cameron. "I'm appalled by the Supreme Court's ruling."
The European court has previously prevented Britain from deporting some terror suspects on human rights grounds.
May said ministers will draw up plans for a new British Bill of Rights — seeking to ensure that Parliament and not judges have the final say on sensitive policies.
"It is time to assert that it is Parliament that makes our laws, not the courts. That the rights of the public come before the rights of criminals," she said.
David Crary in New York, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Mark Sherman in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.