In a rarely seen courageous move, the Mayor of Leiden, Henri Lenferink, announced this weekend that Benno L., an infamous sex offender, had been given permission to move to Leiden. Unfortunately, this decision immediately caused immense public outrage. Benno L. was a swimming teacher, specialised in dealing with hydrophobic children and children with physical and mental impairments. He was arrested in 2009 on charges of sexual abuse of nearly 30 young and very vulnerable girls, and for the production and possession of child pornography. In July 2009 he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. His sentenced was lowered to six years by the court of appeal in May 2010 due to the high publicity that had surrounded the case and the negative impact this had caused for the defendant. After having served two-thirds of his sentence, he was released conditionally in June 2013. The conditions of his release included amongst others: restraining orders prohibiting him being near his old hometown or from contacting any of the victims; participating in psychiatric treatment; reporting to the Dutch probation services (Reclassering Nederland) at such times and places as directed; and restraining from going to swimming pools without permission from the probations services. Although Benno L. had requested that the court allow him to spend his conditional release in Germany, with his family, the court could not grant this request as Germany is yet to implement the European Protection Order in its national law. Therefore there was no guarantee that the conditions of his release would be overseen by German probation services. Considering the impossibility of Benno L.’s relocation to Germany and the restraining orders in place, the public prosecutor and Dutch probation services approached the Mayor of Leiden requesting him to accommodate Benno L. in his city for the duration of one year, after which time his conditional release will have passed and he will be able to move to Germany.
In a well-reasoned public letter Mayor Lenferink addressed this decision and his motivation to allow Benno L. to reside in his city. In the letter he indicates that he carefully considered the request made by the public prosecutor and took into account all conceivable factors, including the duration of the stay, the probation conditions, and the potential risk of recidivism. In addition he reassures the local residents that due to the heavy surveillance by the probation services the risk of recidivism is very low. Moreover he recalls that while this might be a controversial issue, it calls for a proper solution. After all, if all cities were to refuse residency to sex offenders, soon the country would have an insoluble problem. The director of the Dutch probation services, Sjef van Gennip, quickly backed this decision, stating that from the viewpoint of managing the risk of recidivism and successful rehabilitation of sex offenders the Mayor’s decision is very sensible. Adding that while he understands the social upheaval, marginalising and dehumanising these individuals actually increases the risk of recidivism and is therefore a greater threat to the community. Nonetheless, the local residents are still demanding that the Mayor reconsiders his decision and resettles Benno L. in another city (or rather moves him ‘to a shack on the heathland’).
While the release of sex offenders in the community and their subsequent rehabilitation is often controversial and goes hand in hand with mass public outrage, it remains a highly important issue since almost all sex offenders will at some point be released back into the community. Moreover, according to Rutgers WPF, an expert centre on sexuality, approximately 1% of males aged 17-70 (constituting about 70,000 people in the Netherlands) have sexual feelings towards children. While most of these individuals will not engage in criminal activity, some will and the stakes (for the victims and society) are very high. Therefore it is important to work towards a constructive and effective policy to deal with this taboo. The solution obviously cannot entail putting all these people in a ‘shack on the heathland’. It requires genuine political as well as public effort. There should be a way to discuss this important and painful problem without reverting to insults and threats.
Mayor Lenferink took a necessary and logical decision, which is admirable especially in light of the upcoming local elections and the expected public backlash to this decision.