A public register of child sex offenders will do more harm than good
18th Apr 2019
If politicians are looking for a surefire vote winner then anything that punishes people convicted of sex offences does the trick. So there is likely to be little resistance to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s budget announcement of $7.8 million to establish a National Public Register of Child Sex Offenders.
Dutton is proposing that this register would allow all Australians to see names, aliases and photographs of sex offenders, as well as their date of birth, physical description and the ‘general location and nature’ of their crimes.
This initiative might be popular but international research shows that it is likely to lead to vigilantism, have no impact on rates of offending and in fact could increase the risk of reoffending by those on the register. Most importantly, it offers no real assistance or support to people who are the victims of sex crimes.
While it is still unknown which offenders will be subject to this national regime and whether the territories and states will co-operate with its establishment, we do know that making a sex offenders register public is a giant leap from the current position in Australia. Currently in most jurisdictions, sex offender registers are highly restricted in terms of public access. Even in Western Australia, where there is some public access, the sort of information that is available is restricted in terms of types of offences and their location.
In contrast to Australia, the United States has had public registers in most states for over two decades. The results tell us that there is no benefit to the community in such ‘naming and shaming’. In fact, communities where registered sex offenders live can suffer as a result of the public having that information.
A 2011 paper by JJ Prescott of the University of Michigan and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, published in the Journal of Law and Economics, analysed previous research that ‘shows there is evidence that these laws create financial and psychological costs for the neighbours of registered sex offenders’. This includes ‘declines in property value for households living close to registered offenders’ and previous research shows there is little evidence ‘that notification alleviates the concerns of the community members who have been made aware of an offender’s presence’.
There is also the alarming increase in vigilantism and harassment that goes with public registers. They are a recipe for vigilantism, violence and potential loss of life as individuals try to unlawfully take justice into their own hands, as has been seen in the US.
A recent paper from Connecticut and New York-based researchers Michelle Cubellis, Douglas Evans and Adam Fera points to acts of vigilantism against registered offenders and the fact that 10 per cent of the vigilante events they examined involved the wrong individual. In other words, because of inaccurate information or misidentification of individuals, innocent citizens have been physically and verbally attacked by vigilantes. This research concludes that ‘the stigmatisation that convicted sex offenders experience is so pervasive that it extends even to individuals suspected of having committed a sexual offence’. Is this the sort of situation we want to import to Australia?
But, perhaps most importantly, public sex offender registers do not reduce offending and, in fact, might lead to offenders reoffending. In May 2018, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) published a paper which analysed and drew conclusions from the vast body of US public register impact research. The US research shows ‘that convicted sex offenders are more likely to reoffend when their personal and offending information is made public due to the psychological and financial costs on offenders’.
The AIC also wrote that ‘research has found that being placed on a public sex offender registry can result in exclusion from neighbourhood or residence, job loss, anxiety and other psychological problems, all of which are counter-productive in terms of reducing reoffending’. It seems proponents of a public register like Dutton have not bothered to read their own agency’s work.
We also need to remember that the vast majority of child sexual abuse perpetrators are known to the victim. As the AIC notes, Australian Bureau of Statistics work from 2016 shows that ‘83 per cent of child victims of sexual assault aged 0–14 years are assaulted by someone they know’.
The AIC rightly states that ‘policy responses to sexual offending need to be carefully considered and must be based on strong theoretical foundations, supported by evidence’. A public sex offender register will be expensive, is likely to be as counter-productive as its US counterparts and will not achieve Dutton’s professed aim, which is to keep children safe.
This is an edited version of an article originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 April 2019. It has been republished with the author’s permission. The original article can be found here.
Greg Barns is a criminal justice spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance and a barrister.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).