In the news: Why a federal child sex offender registry will not keep our children safer

Today’s (9 January 2019) papers report that Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister, is seeking support from the states and territories for a national sex offender database.  The proposed new reforms will enable a convicted offender’s name, date of birth, photo, details of offending and their general postcode to be publicly searched on an online database.

Grandstanding by politicians who want to be tough on crime is nothing new; and convicted child sex offenders are an easy political target.

The problem with the proposal is that it won’t work.  It won’t keep children safer.  It will cost a lot of money for very little net benefit to the community.

Publically searchable sex offender registers have been common in the United States for some time now, and a limited scheme is in operation in Western Australia.

We therefore have good evidence to show that these schemes don’t work.

First, they don’t reduce sex offending rates.  In 2008, the United States Department of Justice published the results of a study into the effectiveness of “Megan’s Law” (the state of New Jersey’s version of a register)[1].  It concluded that the register:

  • Did not have any demonstrable effect in reducing sexual offending and re-offending;
  • Had no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offences; and
  • involved significant implementation and ongoing costs which were difficult to justify in light of the program’s ineffectiveness.

Second, publicly searchable sex offender registers won’t help parents to make decisions about child and community safety.  Think about it: how does it assist a parent if they know that a registered sex offender lives in their postcode?  Practically, it is a meaningless piece of information that will only stoke parental anxieties.

Third, a publicly searchable sex offender register ignores the shocking reality that children are significantly more likely to be a victim of sexual abuse by a close friend or family member than by a stranger.  On the statistics, children are more likely to die or be vulnerable to abuse by those closest to them.

Fourth, a register will profoundly impact upon the ability of convicted persons to reintegrate into society after they have served their jail sentence.  We know that one of the most effective ways to reduce re-offending is to ensure that convicted persons are able to access support services, have gainful employment and housing.  Placing persons on this register will make it extraordinarily difficult to access these services, which will only serve to further marginalise the offender population.  This will almost certainly increase the likelihood of re-offending, which is hardly in the community interest.  One child victim is one victim too many.

Despite what some politician’s may say, convicted sex offenders do not lose their civil rights.  They are still entitled to get on with their life after they have served their punishment.  They still have rights to access healthcare, housing, privacy, freedom of movement and economic freedom.  As always, in our discourse about criminal justice policy, we need to be guided by the evidence, not our emotions. If the latter reigns, our whole community will suffer for it.