copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

The Woodsman
Saying the unsayable

by Jamie Bennett

Jamie Bennett is a professional prison manager working in the England & Wales Prison Service. He has previously held posts including Head of the Dangerous & Severe Personality Disorder Unit at the high-security HMP Whitemoor, and Deputy Governor of HMP Gartree, which houses life sentence prisoners. He is currently Deputy Governor of HMP Whitemoor. He has written on a range of criminal justice issues, including prison films, for publications including The Prison Service Journal, Criminal Justice Matters and Journal of Crime, Conflict & the Media. He is also editor of the Prison Service Journal.

Sex offenders, particularly child sex offenders, are amongst the most feared and reviled people in today’s society. Media representation, political and public concern about a number of high profile, extreme crimes has driven a hard-line approach including lengthier sentences, increased supervision and heavy stigmatisation. Against this backdrop attempts to engage in a more rational discussion about the risks and policies often results in highly emotive criticism and condemnation (e.g. see Silverman & Wilson 2002).

As one commentator writes,

"[People] have become increasingly angry in recent years in response to a series of violent and highly publicized sexual assaults, primarily against children, committed by individuals with extensive prior sexual offence histories. This outrage has been intensified by the perception, justified or not, that systems traditionally used by justice agencies to monitor law-breakers returned to the community do not adequately protect the public from that unique category of individual known as the sex offender." (Chaiken 1998)

Against this background, it is perhaps an unusual career move for an established Hollywood actor and a first-time director to make a film that attempts to sensitively and humanely depict a paedophile, but that is exactly the challenge accepted by Kevin Bacon and Nicole Kassell. The result is an outstanding film that, whilst not avoiding challenging issues, sensitivity and rationality depicts the difficult and painful attempts of Walter Rossworth (Kevin Bacon) to re-establish himself in the community after twelve years in prison for molesting two young girls.

The plot of The Woodsman (Dir. Nicole Kassell U.S. 2004) is as follows: Walter is released under the supervision of tough cop, Sergeant Lucas, and receives ongoing support from a counsellor. He finds employment at a local wood mill where he develops a relationship with co-worker Vicki and he struggles, unsuccessfully, to rebuild his relationship with his sister, through his brother-in-law, Carlos.  However, the pressures of his desires and events in his life start to affect Walter’s behaviour. His relationship with Vicki comes close to breaking point when he reveals his offence. Sergeant Lucas harasses Walter every time an offence is reported in the local area. His relationship with Carlos breaks down. And his co-workers in the mill violently shun him when his offence is revealed. Housed in a flat overlooking a school, Walter watches another sex offender, whom he names "Candy," grooming children. With the pressures in his life building up, Walter’s battle to resist his desire to re-offend becomes increasingly difficult until he finds himself developing a relationship with a young girl, Robin. When she reveals that her father has abused her, Walter faces up to his actions. He sends Robin home and returns to the school where he confronts and viciously attacks Candy. An uneasy calm returns, with Sergeant Lucas backing-off, knowing what Walter has done to Candy, Vicki decides to stand by him and he has his first, albeit unsuccessful, meeting with his sister. While there is a long and difficult road ahead, Walter has made it through the first battle.    

The film has enjoyed some critical success (Ide 2004, Johnston 2004) and was awarded the Satyajit Ray Foundation prize for best debut film at the London Film Festival. However, with such a challenging and controversial film, its power to move beyond the cinema is a crucial mark of its success. This article explores the social context in which this film has been made, its purpose and the issues it raises.

The social construction of reality:
sex crimes & the media 

Over the last decade, there has been an increased concern about the risk presented by sex offenders. This has been characterised as a "moral panic," out of proportion to the reality of the risk (Silverman & Wilson 2002). Analysis of media representations of sex crimes has consistently shown that "stranger danger’ is disproportionately emphasized (Soothill & Walby 1991, Greer 2003a, 2003b & 2003c). Coverage is often superficial, ignoring wider issues in favour of sensationalism, stereotyping and inaccuracy, which refuses to differentiate sexual offences (Greer 2003b).

However, this should not be seen in isolation. This reflects wider changes in the representation of crime, which has seen an increase in coverage of sexual and violent crime (Reiner, Livingston & Allen 2003); in market forces (Silverman & Wilson 2002); as well as in issues such as increased tabloidization of news, law & order politics, the efforts of campaign organisations, and the increased openness about sexual issues in society (Greer 2003c). However, it is also true that the horrific nature of a small number of crimes is such that they have a wider, enduring resonance because they are so shocking. On occasions, these have become "signal crimes" (Innes 2003), leading to calls for wider changes in law and policy. Obvious examples are the appalling murders of Megan Kanka in the US and Sarah Payne in the UK that led to calls for increased supervision and public notification of sex offenders. 

These crimes achieve the most extensive media coverage and have the greatest resonance with the public. They therefore start to shape a picture of sex offending based on the rarest and most extreme examples, rather than on more common, lower-level examples of offending, often by family and acquaintances of victims. These skewed media representations have an impact on viewers' perceptions and beliefs. As Ray Surette describes it:

“[P]eople use knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a picture of the world, an image of reality on which they base their actions. This process, sometimes called "the social construction of reality," is particularly important in the realm of crime, justice, and the media.” (Surette 1997)

This construction of reality comes from a mixture of popular culture, personal experience, the experiences of others, and information from institutions. The influence of the media becomes increasingly significant when alternative sources of information are not available (Surette 1998). As most people, thankfully, do not have direct experience of sexual offending in general and sexual offending against children in particular, media representations take on an increased importance, whether that be factual or fictional representations. 

In relation to sexual offenders, the media shape our views in a number of important ways:

“Media representations of sex crimes give important indicators of the nature and extent of the problem, of how we should think and feel about it, of how we should respond to it, and of preventative measures that might be taken to reduce the risk of victimization.” (Greer 2003b)

Films can be particularly important in shaping views. Wilson & O’Sullivan (2004) develop this argument in their analysis of how cinema representations of the criminal justice system shape public perception (this analysis was developed in relation to prison films but their conclusions are equally relevant to other criminal justice agencies). They argue that the media shape views by providing an insight into a world that the general public know little about and have little direct experience of. The authors provide a benchmark for acceptable treatment, translate academic and political concerns into digestible narratives, expose perspectives that are often at odds with media and official descriptions, and create empathy with offenders and those that work with them (Wilson & O’Sullivan 2004). It can be seen that the depiction of sex offenders in the media builds a picture of who they are and how they act, shapes the response of the community and views about how effective this is, as well as condition our emotional response to these people.

Recent research also supports this view about the impact of the media, showing that individuals’ views about crime and punishment can be changed when alternative perspectives are presented, including in fictional forms (Gillespie et al 2003). However, entrenched views are difficult to dislodge. Where there are large gaps in knowledge, people fall back on pre-formed assumptions and prejudices. This research shows that tabloid newspapers are particularly influential in shaping punitive attitudes. In relation to fictional depictions, Gillespie writes:

“Viewers are more likely to respond favourably to alternatives to prison when the story or drama offers multiple perspectives and identifications. When a drama focuses on the crime and the police investigation, rather than on common humanity and shared experiences, viewers are less likely to consider alternatives to prison as satisfactory options.” (Gillespie et al 2004)

Previous films to address sex offending have strongly focussed on the investigation, in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing (Dir. Otto Preminger UK 1965) or The Pledge (Dir. Sean Penn US 2001), the subsequent destruction of the family, such as Exotica (Dir. Atom Egoyan Can 1994) or Happiness (Dir. Todd Solondz US 1998), or indeed the grotesqueness and brutality of the crime itself, such as Irreversible (Dir. Gaspar Noe 2003). They have therefore simply confirmed existing perceptions rather than challenging them or presenting alternatives. In contrast, The Woodsman tries to challenge these common representations and build an important counter-point. The narrative includes building empathy with a child sex offender’s attempts to resettle in the community, challenging public policy and exploring alternative approaches to the problem.

In summary, cinematic depictions of sex offenders, and those that offend against children, tend to be one-dimensional. They create an impression that the risk is high and increasing. They encourage a concern about stranger attacks that perhaps masks the reality of the risks. They foster rejection, exclusion and even hate as emotional responses. The media is important in shaping public perceptions about crime, but to date, films have merely confirmed widely held fears and stereotypes about sexual offending. This has significant implications for the community and its ability to manage the risk effectively. However, The Woodsman attempts to stand against this tide.

Seeing the wood from the trees:
sexual offending against children

Sexual offending is rightly considered to be amongst the most serious crimes. However, it is thankfully rare and is reducing. In the United States, it has been estimated that there were 250,000 sexual offences committed in 2002 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003), down from over 300,000 in 1996 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, nd). This accounts for around 1% of all crime. It has been estimated that about a third of these offences are committed against victims under 18 years old (Snyder 2000). In UK, 5,700 sexual offences resulted in conviction or caution in 2003, 0.5% of all offences. This has declined from 7,600 a decade ago. All specific offences against children have reduced, except gross indecency with children, which has seen a very minor increase (Home Office 2004).

Whilst coverage often focuses on the most serious crimes committed by faceless, predatory offenders, the so-called "stranger danger," the reality is that sexual offending is much more diverse. It also often takes place much closer to home. One study suggested that 93% of offenders were a family member (34.2%) or acquaintance (58.7%) of their victim (Snyder 2000), a finding that has been replicated in other studies (Greenfield 1996). 

In terms of diversity, sexual offending covers a broad spectrum from the most serious offences, such as sexual murder and rape, to offences such as indecent assault, exposure or lewd public behaviour. The majority of sex offences are not at the extreme end of the spectrum. If we look just at the most rare and extreme cases, stranger murders of children remained static for three decades (Silverman and Wilson 2002). In the United States the increase in child murders is largely accounted for as a result of deaths amongst teenage urban males, unconnected to sexual offending, but more closely connected to social issues such as drugs, gangs, violence and gun control (Greenfield 1996). 

However, politicians and the media have often painted a picture that is at odds with the evidence. Texas Senator Florence Shapiro has stated:

“I like to say they [sex offenders] have three very unique characteristics:
1. They are the least likely to be cured
2. They are the most likely to reoffend
3. They prey on the most innocent members of our society” (Shapiro 1998)

However, one US study followed almost 10,000 sex offenders, including 4,000 child sex offenders, over a three-year period. They found that just over 5% were reconvicted of a sexual offence. The total re-arrest rate was 43%, compared to 68% for the general population. Indeed, 87% of the new sex offences committed by released prisoners were committed by people who had no previous convictions for sexual offending (Lanagan et al 2003). Similarly, in the UK, the overall re-conviction rate for adult males is 55% within two years, but for sexual offences it is only 14%, with less than one in five of those convictions being for a sexual offence. Again, new sexual offences by released prisoners are overwhelmingly committed by those not previously convicted of a sexual offence (Home Office 2003).

We can see, then, that despite public fear and political assertions, sexual offences are rare and declining. They are overwhelmingly committed by family or acquaintances. And sexual offenders are less likely to re-offend.

It is without question that every single sexual offence is an appalling act and no offence is acceptable. The immense damage caused by sexual offending should never be forgotten. However, we must have a genuine picture of the reality of offending, the risk presented and the steps that can be taken to reduce that risk, and such a realistic picture must inform the response of the community. Unfortunately, the media and political climate does not always encourage a realistic or rational approach.

"I don’t know why they keep letting
freaks like you out on the street" —
Criticisms of current policy

The film The Woodsman develops some of the social issues about managing sexual offenders in the community, bringing some of the major political and academic concerns to life. In particular, it critically explores the issues of supervision and monitoring, community notification and "child safety zones."

On release, Walter is subject to both treatment, through ongoing counselling, and supervision and monitoring by a tough cop, Sergeant Lucas. Lucas makes no secret of his hatred of sex offenders, threatening to throw Walter out of a window, knowing that that there would be very little concern:

"You think somebody’s gonna miss you?…You’d just be a dead piece of shit."

Lucas revels in telling the lurid detail of extreme sexual crimes he has investigated, and he tars Walter with the same brush:

"I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you out on the street. It just means we got to catch you all over again."

This is a widely held view, as Senator Shapiro has illustrated:

"The nature and deviousness of these offenders and the innocent and vulnerable character of their victims combine to form a highly toxic and flammable mixture when it comes to public confidence in the system. The public does not really care what we do with sex offenders. All it cares about is that these offenders are kept off our streets" (Shapiro 1998).

Putting aside the issue of whether the film's portrayal of Lucas is "realistic," increased monitoring and assertive supervision of sex offenders has become a feature of US ("Jacob Wetterling" and "Pam Lychner" Acts) and UK legislation (Sexual Offences Act 1997) through the introduction of sex offender registers. There are questions about the effectiveness of these registers. For example, Lieb (1998) showed that in Washington state, prisoners who were released with and without notification committed the same number of new sex offences. However, the timing to re-arrest was quicker among the notification group. It may be argued that the sex offenders registry is a valuable tool that helps early intervention (the study was not conclusive on this point). But this film presents the idea that this kind of supervision increases the risk by placing pressure on offenders. Indeed, in the UK, the biggest increase in sexual offences has been in "Breach of Trust" offences, i.e., ones relating to registration. These first appeared in 2001 and now account for almost 10% of sexual offences (Home Office 2004). Is the existence of sex offender registries really making the community safer, or is it simply a reflection of fear, intolerance and the unwillingness of the community to accept released sex offenders in their midst?

The film's title comes from the story of Little Red Riding Hood, where at the end of the fable, the Woodsman cuts open the wolf and finds Little Red Riding Hood safe and well inside. Sergeant Lucas tells the story after recounting to Walter a brutal child murder that he investigated, where the child was "sodomised in half." Lucas depressingly concludes that, "there are no fucking Woodsmen in this world." His words seem to expose the limitations of a reactive approach to policing sex offenders — there are no happy endings here.   

A common argument deployed against this assertive approach to community supervision and notification is that it undermines attempts to treat offenders and manage risk (e.g. see comments of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation in Silverman & Wilson 2002). This film presents a graphic portrayal of this result of constant surveillance. When Walter is asked by his counsellor to keep a journal of his thoughts, his response is, "No fucking way." When asked why, he simply says, "Evidence." Although Walter starts to keep a journal, he constantly hides it from the policeman and is terrified when Lucas almost stumbles across it. The professionals' confused approach here means that there is a lack of consistency among those involved in managing Walter.   

Another emblematic policy that has arisen during the last decade is community notification. In the US, this developed after the murder of Megan Kanka, which led to the introduction of "Megan’s Law." In the UK, the murder of Sarah Payne led for calls for an equivalent "Sarah’s Law." And there was a short-lived but dramatic campaign by the News of the World newspaper to disclose the names of sex offenders in the community. Although these calls were resisted in the UK, there are limited powers for community notification in high-risk cases under the Sexual Offences Act 1997. This policy has aroused significant argument about whether it is a legitimate tool to inform the community of the genuine risks, or whether it undermines attempts to manage risk, creates a false sense of security, or encourages vigilantism (Pearson 1998). Certainly, research suggests no clear evidence of any real benefits (see Silverman & Wilson 2002).  

This film makes a number of points about these social and legal measures. Firstly, community notification is misused by Walter’s co-worker, Mary-Kay, after he spurs her advances. Although she makes pious claims that people have a "right to know," her disclosure of the information throughout the wood mill is motivated by bitterness and jealousy. The others in the mill react in predictably hostile and even violent ways. This is one of the triggers that pushes Walter towards his meeting with Robin.

Near the end of the film, following the attack on Candy, we find out that Candy was wanted in another state for raping a boy. The point the film makes is that some sex offenders simply leave the area where their presence has been noticed and go underground elsewhere. This same issue has been raised in academic literature (Perason 1998) and by law enforcement agencies (e.g. see comments of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation in Silverman & Wilson 2002).

More recently, an idea of creating "child safety zones" has emerged. It entails introducing exclusion areas around areas populated by children, such as play areas or schools. More recently, there has been attempts to commercially exploit social fear, in one instance by building a "sex offender-free" neighbourhood in Texas where potential homebuyers are screened for previous convictions (Blaney 2005). In the film, Walter has a flat that overlooks a school, but he counts out the 320 feet from his door to the school gate. Although he remains outside the exclusion area, he is not reducing the risk. More significantly, as has been described previously, such measures do not address the risk of unconvicted sex offenders, including those in the family. This evidence of social denial exposes the tokenism that underlies this sort of exclusionary action. If we buy into legislation or commercial opportunism that simply makes us feel good, but does not address the real problems, we are likely to make things worse, not better. 

The Woodsman has a complex script. It is critical of popular methods for managing child sex offenders in the community. It builds up a picture of numerous social and interpersonal methods that undermine attempts to reform, rehabilitate and resettle. The film builds up a picture of the collateral damage in terms of abuse of human rights and due process by law enforcement agencies, violence, hostility, irresponsible use of notification, and policy that is little more than a token. Above all, though, the film builds up a picture that social policies are now far from providing an effective means of managing risks. The film's narrative indicates that much of the current social approach increases the risk by building pressure on Walter and driving him towards further offending.     

"Will I ever be normal?"
A critique of what works 

The film does not simply reject mainstream methods for managing sex offenders in the community. It also develops some important alternatives. In particular, it develops the notion of a more inclusive and supportive approach. However, the film does not shy away from depicting the risks and from valuing the limits of our tolerance. It also hints at the hidden abuse, the vast majority of sexual offending that takes place in the home.

There are a number of important people who help Walter in his attempts to return to the community and resist the temptations of offending — in particular his partner, Vicki, his brother-in-law, Carlos, his employer and his counsellor. After the initial shock of hearing of Walter’s past, Vicki decides to stay with him, and crucially seeks him out at times of crisis. Carlos tries to maintain the link with Walter’s family, until he reaches the limit of his tolerance. His employer stands up for him when his co-workers violently shun him on hearing about his offences, telling them that if they don’t like it, to get another job. Finally, his counsellor sensitively supports him through the turmoil of temptation, desire, resistance and change.

In all, these people form a kind of circle of support, helping and accepting Walter, offering him a second chance. The idea of Circles of Support & Accountability were developed in Canada, originally by practicing Quakers. This approach manages high-risk sex offenders through the work of groups of volunteer community members. Weekly meetings provide intensive support and monitoring (Silverman & Wilson 2002). In Canada, this has produced dramatic results, with a 70% reduction on predicted re-offending (Wilson 2005). In the UK, pilot schemes have also had encouraging progress (Thames Valley Circles of Support & Accountability 2003).

However, such groups clearly face problems with people accepting that this is an appropriate way to manage sexual offenders. Silverman & Wilson (2002) succinctly describe this rejection:

"for many, perhaps the majority, both in the UK and North America, such an inclusive approach is untenable and appears to be some kind of betrayal of abused children."

The Woodsman challenges that preconceived notion, bravely setting a moral benchmark that this approach of using "groups of support and accountability" is not simply better on spurious liberal, ethical grounds, but it may be more effective.

Although this film's narrative follows both Walter and Candy, both of whom are "stranger" offenders, in its characterization, the film also contrasts the two. Walter develops relationships and seeks consent, and does not physically threaten or attack his victims, while Candy is a violent child rapist. The film also exposes abuse that takes place closer to home, abuse within the family. We hear how Walter’s abuse started with his own sister when they were children, and we hear how Vicki was abused by her brothers, who she describes as now being "good strong gentleman with families of their own." Most devastatingly, though, Walter pulls back from his approaches to the young girl, Robin, when she reveals that her father has been molesting her. He tells Robin to "go home," but there is no sanctuary there. Unlike the Woodsman saving Red Riding Hood from the Wolf, in saving Robin from himself, Walter does not grant her safety. There are no woodsmen in this world.   

In following these themes, the film questions the very basis of social policy towards sex offending. It exposes the diversity of offending in the approaches taken by perpetrators and in the risk within the home. It questions the soundness of the stereotypical notion of "stranger danger." It also questions the effectiveness of social rejection and public shaming, which form part of today’s policies. It suggests that many public policies toward child sexual molestation may encourage complacency and increase the risk, rather than making us safer. Instead, the film suggests that a more open-minded and considered approach may create a safer world for our children by informing us of the real risks and the appropriate strategies for tackling them.

"You’d just be a dead piece of shit"
Empathy and the limits of tolerance

This film tries to build empathy with a difficult and damaged character, showing the complexity and torment of rehabilitation. However, it also confronts the viewer with the limits of their tolerance.

Walter is the hub of the film and central to this is his personal battle to change despite the temptations and the difficulties he faces. He asks, "Will I ever be normal?" For him,

"Normal is when I can be near to a girl even talk to a girl and not think about…that’s my idea of normal."

However, following his release, he continues to fantasize about young girls whom he sees and is momentarily drawn to follow or try to talk to them. His mind becomes frenzied and delirious as the battle between desire and resistance rages inside. His counsellor tries to put this turmoil in context, by reminding him that, "by going round in circles, we find things we missed first time around." The film's therapy sessions serve to explain to both Walter and the viewer that the urges that led Walter to offend will not disappear, but he will have to, day-by-day, learn to control them.

This struggle is played out in two parallel and contrasting storylines that build a metaphor for Walter’s state of mind. The first is his developing but ultimately resisted relationship with the girl Robin. Here he comes face-to-face with his desires, but he survives. The second storyline deals with the predatory rapist, Candy, whom Walter observes around the local school and who eventually tempts a young boy into his car, using techniques well known to Walter. Following his near-miss with Robin, Walter confronts Candy, who has just returned to the school with the boy he has just abused. Walter attacks the man and viciously beats him, seeing himself reflected in the face of Candy. The scene plays out as if Walter were physically fighting his own demons, and on this occasion winning.

Although the film builds empathy with the character of Walter, it also confronts the viewer with the appalling nature of his crimes, challenging the limits of our tolerance. In one scene, he turns on his brother-in-law, Carlos, challenging Carlos' attempts to befriend him as superficial and insincere. He challenges Carlos, asking Carlos if he has ever had sexual thoughts about his own daughter. Carlos reacts predictably by punching Walter, but ultimately, he still plays a role in trying to maintain the rebuild the relationship between Walter and his sister, escorting her to an unsuccessful meeting with Walter at the film’s close. Like Carlos, viewers are invited to see beyond their initial revulsion and look at the whole person. Walter's characterization provides a moral fulcrum in the same way as Stanley Kubrick described that in A Clockwork Orange (1971):

"…when you reject the treatment of even a character as wicked as Alex the moral point is clear’ (Siskel 1972).

Despite this shocking confrontation between Walter and Carlos, the film still supports an inclusive approach and still sees the potential for redemption; the moral point is clear. The film builds empathy, or rather challenges the viewer to feel empathy for Walter. This is not easy and the limits of tolerance are explored. Nevertheless, the film maintains a clear moral standpoint about our attitudes and approach to sex offenders.

"There are no woodsmen in this world"

Sergeant Lucas’s mournful conclusion, "There are no fucking woodsmen in this world," shows the limits of the community in protecting children. There are no easy answers. While punitive supervision and social rejection are natural reactions, they do not offer a solution, and may indeed make things worse. However, an inclusive approach goes against our instinctive feelings and challenges us at the deepest emotional level.

The film does not suggest that the road ahead is easy. Indeed, it makes it clear that dealing with childhood sexual offense and offenders is traumatic and fraught with dangers. However, the film’s success lies in the fact that it has the courage to create a space for measured reflection on the issue of managing sex offenders in the community, away from the hysteria and panic of common representations. It builds empathy with a difficult, damaged character. It attempts to show the diversity of offending and the risks within the family as well as from strangers. It dramatizes critical issues in public policy and presents alternative approaches. It is for these qualities that reviewers have described the film as "brave" (Ide 2004) or "remarkable" (Johnston 2004).       

In going beyond the label of sex offenders as "the "hate figure of our time" (Thomas 2005) and exploring these complex and emotive social issues in a digestible, rational form, The Woodsman stands apart from the popular representations. Instead of misleading and fanning fears, it attempts to build knowledge and understanding. It has been argued that a more rational information campaign, like that used to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, would be much more effective in offering protection to children (Mackenzie 1998, for example see Barnados 2005). This film has the potential to open up a more educative debate of this kind. It would therefore be tragic if its message were drowned in the cacophony of moral panic.


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The Woodsman: Full disclosure by Lesage and Kleinhans