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Sex offender public register won’t protect our children

Sex offender public register won’t protect our children

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For his latest bid in the law-and-order auction that is the 2018 Victorian state election, Opposition leader Matthew Guy has promised a Serious Sex Offender Public Register.

Guy’s proposal calls for parents to be able to access information about serious sex offenders, including their names, photographs and the suburbs in which they live. The theory is that by allowing people to see and recognise sexual predators in the community, they are better able to protect their children.

Repeat sexual offending is a heinous crime, but community notification is not the way to prevent it. There is now a substantial body of evidence in the United States – where community notification in some form is mandatory in all states – that clearly shows that such public information schemes do not improve community safety.

In 2015, I undertook a review of the evidence on the effectiveness of community notification as part of a larger report for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Time and again, studies that I examined revealed a stark fact: reoffending by registered sex offenders subject to community notification laws is no lower than for those not subject to such laws. Indeed, much research has shown that community notification has had the opposite effect. The stigma associated with being a publicly known sex offender has prevented rehabilitation, reintegration and thus desistance from offending, resulting in worse reoffending outcomes and poorer public protection.

Indeed, community notification about sex offenders can actually increase the risk to the public by providing a false sense of security and diluting people’s ability to determine where the greatest threat lies. Research shows that sexual offending is just as likely to be committed by a convicted burglar or robber as by a convicted sex offender; notification schemes that focus on convicted sex offenders do not allow for the versatility of other offenders’ criminal careers. And even when community notification schemes are in place, only a small minority of residents take the time to access such information, rendering ineffective any community protection potential these schemes may hope to provide.

Sadly, most sexual offences against children are committed by people known to the victim, particularly family members. The prevalence of sexual offences by strangers is low compared with crimes committed by offenders whom the victim knows. Community notification laws are designed to provide information about strangers who may reside in the area; they do nothing to protect against people we know. The burden for every member of a family touched by intra-family sexual abuse is unimaginable. Consider how the threat of the added glare of public scrutiny will add to that burden – and dampen the already low reporting rates for such crimes.

Western Australia is the only Australian jurisdiction with a public notification scheme. It launched its version of a public sex offender register in 2012, with strict access constraints and only the most serious and repeat offenders listed. The Northern Territory introduced community notification legislation in 2014 but has not gone ahead with its development, following significant criticism that such schemes inhibit offender rehabilitation, without improving community safety. A national public child sex offender registry was rejected at a 2014 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

The lack of public access to information on sex offenders in Australia does not mean that the authorities are without the tools they need: the National Child Offender System is a web-based application that allows police to record and, importantly, share information about sex offenders who offend against children.

Preventing sexual offences against children is perhaps the most emotive area of criminal justice policy. But public policies to prevent and respond to it must be based firmly on the evidence. Community notification laws may appeal to politicians ready to exploit every parent’s fear, but they have not proven to be of any practical value. The research evidence clearly shows that this approach does nothing to reduce reoffending or to protect the community. Our children would be safer were we to spend more time, money and effort to prevent crime before it happens: by increasing the use of evidence-based risk assessment, and treating known offenders with the aim of safely returning them to the community.

Dr Karen Gelb is a Consultant Criminologist. She was previously the Senior Criminologist at the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council.


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