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Moral panic: does public registration of sex offenders work?

WA has a new public register of sex offenders. What does the research show on the benefits (or otherwise) of similar schemes in the US and the UK?

There are few measurable benefits in having a public sex offender registry like the one launched in Western Australia last week, according to academic studies of similar instruments already operating in the US and the UK. Several research papers (including a NSW Parliament briefing paper from 2009) have found that instead of raising awareness or preventing crime, criminal tracking and databases tend to heighten community anxiety, leading to vigilantism and stereotyping.

One federally-funded study conducted in the US found in 2009 that: “Despite wide community support for these laws, there is little evidence … to support a claim that Megan’s Law is effective in reducing either new first-time sex offenders or sexual re-offenders.”

Megan’s Law” is the blanket term for laws governing sex-offender registration in the US. National, sex-offender registration began in the US in 1994. The UK has a similar law that was introduced in 2008, covering the whole of England and Wales since 2011. Each law is named for the victims whose deaths became the catalysts for the press and the public to demand the registration of convicted sex offenders. In the UK it’s known as “Sarah’s Law”.

The more benignly named Community Protection Western Australia site that went live last week provides the public with details for dangerous or repeat offenders. It also allows WA residents to search their local area for registered offenders and for parents and guardians to request a check on a specific individual. It did not result from moral panic surrounding one particularly heinous crime. It was simply a law and order promise in the state’s 2008 election campaign.

WA Minister for Police Liza Harvey acknowledges this, stating the state government “believes that it will be a useful community awareness and information tool for WA families”.

By many accounts the registry and online listing will do little to prevent sexual assaults. The US study showed that 16.1% of sexual assaults were committed by strangers, while 33.6% were committed by acquaintances. Australian statistics show that more than half of all sexual assault victims knew their attacker.

We are not implying that the register will prevent all child sex crimes,” Harvey said. “We are simply saying that this is one tool that parents and guardians can use to arm themselves with information regarding sex offenders in their neighbourhood or people who have regular, unsupervised contact with their children.”

Kerry Burns, the convener of the Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault, says while WA lawmakers have the right intentions, registration is misplaced. ”It seems to be a system about ‘stranger danger’, where in reality most children are assaulted in the home or by a family member,” Burns said. “This system won’t help to protect them.”

Burns stated that while the safety of children in the community was paramount, past offenders did not need to be vilified. “Sex offenders, once they have completed their time, have a human right to safety,” she said.

US studies found that registration does nothing to stop reoffending. It speculated that registration could lead to more harm than good by raising community anxiety which, on occasion, has lead to acts of vigilantism. The report also highlights one instance of vigilantism in Warren County, NJ, where a father and son bashed an innocent man in his own home, mistaken for a registered offender. Under the WA legislation, acts like this could carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Brett Collins of the Community Justice Coalition said that public registration does not serve a purpose but only diverts police resources. “Police resources will be protecting people with histories against outraged and threatened member[s] of the public.” Collins, who supported convicted p-edophile Dennis Ferguson’s return to the community in 2009, says the register will prevent convicted offenders from rehabilitating in the community. “It will cause exclusion and focus on the one characteristic of the person’s history.”

Labelling and registration of sex offenders can break symptoms of denial that many experience, studies found. But this can likewise lead down a track to recidivism due simply mental association in the mind of the offender that they are a criminal, the research indicates. Collins said this factor only serves to disturb the community as it will “cause exclusion and focus on the one characteristic of the person’s history”.

We have settled several high profile people without a difficulty,” Collins said, “even though they were under enormous exclusion pressure.”

In the days following the WA “Community Protection” site going live, legislation was introduced into the state’s Parliament to allow GPS tracking of dangerous sex offenders. This received much less attention than the publicly accessible database.

5
  • 1
    elknwit
    Posted Thursday, 25 October 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Well of course the criminal welfare industry would trot out the usual..”there’s no evidence that [fil in whatever measure you like] lessens crime…” How would you ever know? Its like asking a man for evidence he has stopped beating his wife - a claim easily made and diffuclt to duspute. In fact any study of any sanctions for crime reveals there is “no evidence” that any measure commonly adopted to impose accountability for criminal activity lessens a specific crime - -particulalry jail. So let’s not have jail? Then what! I actually dont agree with this regiater but there are good reasons to argue its usefulnees and the benefit and right of the public to have it that have and need have nothing to do with “lessining [the] crime”. This is the classic staw man argument always raised by the usual lobby groups - -invent an objective not sought by a measure which you can disprove then advertise some imaginary victory out of artiulating an irrlevancy. At least if the public knows where these individuals are they can act to avoid them if they wish.That is a legitimate public concern. And while we are on the “no evidence” red herring there is no evidence these measures increase the crime or its repetition or result in any measurable increase in vigilantism - -none.

  • 2
    Monash.edu
    Posted Thursday, 25 October 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Anybody who denies that these measures encourage vigilantism is a complete idiot, though still a little smarter than any politician who would ever institute such a thing.

  • 3
    elknwit
    Posted Thursday, 25 October 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    What an intellegent response Monash.edu. Well, let’s see, I’d say annyone who denies that lesser jail sentences dont encourage more crime is an idiot - with the same rational and evdentiary credibility as your assertion - zero. Evidenceless assertions are just expressions of faith - and you are fully enetiled to your faith like any believer. But that right does not make those who reject those beliefs through lack of evidence any more of an idiot than an atheist who rejects the existence of a god.

  • 4
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Thursday, 25 October 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm some people are saying, public registration of sex offenders, if that’s all well and good; consider this - seeing the RC church is so secretive and protective about their sex offender priests, brothers, moving these people around to distant parishes, etc. Should priests and brothers be listed as maybe/possible/potential offenders (we know from experience the RC church hides them) as well as the churches to make the public aware of the potential of a sex offender being in their church community?

  • 5
    Phen
    Posted Thursday, 25 October 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Given its a Barnett re-election stunt, it should be christened “Colin’s Law”.

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