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.
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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.