Britain's law enforcement authorities are stepping onto controversial new ground in a bid to head off potential crimes by those judged to be "untreatable" psychopaths and child molesters.
Home Secretary Jack Straw is urging Parliament to approve allowing courts to order the detention of people diagnosed as suffering from severe personality disorders - described by a senior probation officer as "ticking time bombs" - even if they have committed no crime.
The measure, announced in the House of Commons Feb. 15, is sparking hostile reactions from lawyers and civil liberty groups, who say it infringes on human rights and undermines the hitherto unchallenged belief that all citizens must be presumed innocent until they are proven guilty.
But Mr. Straw, who has built a reputation as a tough law-and-order minister, claims a change in the law is needed to deal with people who present what he calls a "lethal danger" to their fellow citizens.
"Any power to detain would be balanced by action to ensure that, once in detention, those concerned are given the best possible chance of a safe return to the community," Straw told the Commons.
Under current mental health laws, people can be detained only if doctors believe their condition is treatable.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has decided on drastic action following Michael Stone's alleged killings of a mother and daughter. A drug abuser diagnosed as having a psychopathic personality disorder, Mr. Stone had previously asked for help with his disorder, but was refused. Because he had not at that time committed any crime and was judged untreatable, there were no legal grounds for holding him. Straw's measure is intended to close what he calls the "loophole in the law" that made the murder possible.
He says the new legislation needs also to be used against "dangerous pedophiles" who prey on young children. In recent years in Britain there have been several high-profile cases of pedophiles abusing children in orphanages and other child-care institutions.
Straw gave the Commons few details of the conditions in which he plans to hold individuals deemed a risk to the community, but government officials are talking of a "third way" - holding them neither in prisons nor in hospitals, but in specially built units.
In the United States, Kansas and Illinois have laws providing for the confinement for treatment of people deemed violent sexual predators after their scheduled release from prison.
In Switzerland and Germany, people deemed mentally ill who have committed offenses can be monitored by authorities, and the Netherlands has security measures under which people can be detained indefinitely, but the system does not apply to "pre-offenders."
Straw is also said by officials to be considering a nation-wide "early warning system" that would alert police, probation, and social services when someone judged a risk was released from prison or a mental health institution.
The officials say anyone with a history of violence, drug misuse, specific threats, and an obviously poor mental state could be eligible for detention under the planned law. It is this apparently sweeping provision that is alarming civil-rights groups.
According to British Health Department estimates, some 2,700 individuals could fall within the scope of the planned law, but Mind, a leading mental health charity, says the great majority might never commit a crime. A spokesman for Mind said: "As many as 13 percent of the British population suffer some form of personality disorder, but few present a risk to the public. Careful assessment would be needed to prevent harmless people being locked away."
Civil rights groups are hostile to the Straw plan. John Wadham, spokesman for London-based Liberty, Britain's largest civil rights organization, said: "These proposals are quite shocking. Proving you are not dangerous is almost impossible. There is no doubt that some people who are no danger will be locked up."
The Law Society, representing one wing of the British legal profession, voiced "major concerns" about the proposals. The Bar Council, which speaks for barristers (court advocates), said: "Plans to lock someone up before he or she has committed a crime need to be examined extremely carefully."
The Blair government has a firm majority in the Commons and, given Straw's deep commitment to the plan, there is every chance it will pass into law this year. But it is certain to get a rough ride from critics within the ruling Labour Party.
Veteran Labour backbencher Tony Benn told the Commons: "While recognizing that there is a problem here, have you looked at some of the precedents?
"Internment without trial in Northern Ireland was justified on exactly the same basis, that people convicted of no offense were kept out of the public domain without a trial. In the Soviet Union this practice was widely followed because it can easily be abused."
In reply, Straw said he did not accept Mr. Benn's comparison between what he was planning and internment measures taken in Northern Ireland at the height of terrorist violence.