The Northern Territory Sex Offender Public Website (Daniel’s Law) Act (“the NTSOPW Act”), as it will apparently be formally designated, sends so many wrong messages it is hard to know where to start. Of course, at the time of writing, no details have been provided.

As yet we have no definition of the “serious sex offenders” whose names, photographs, physical descriptions and regional locations will be published on the NTSOPW. Notably, Attorney-General John Elferink’s media release did not state that the reach of the NTSOPW would be restricted to child sex offenders.

An obvious starting point would be to place all reportable offenders pursuant to the existing Child Protection (Offender Reporting and Registration) Act (NT) on the NTSOPW, and then top it up with details of sex offenders convicted of similarly serious crimes against adults. That would include everything from rape to indecent assault.

The Attorney-General has assured us that to protect the identity of victims, details of the crimes committed by each person on the NTSOPW will not be published. This however raises the spectre that everyone on this “easy user-friendly” site will be indiscriminately branded as a dangerous sexual predator.

Similarly, the Attorney-General has been at pains to point out that, unlike the Derryn Hinch model for community-based DIY justice, the NTSOPW will not publish offenders’ full residential addresses, but merely “regional locations”, such as “Darwin”.

It is obvious, though, that any committed would-be vigilante armed with a Facebook account and a smartphone would have little difficulty in tracking down the whereabouts of the named and shamed offenders.

Even more disturbingly, in many cases, the victims will also become readily identifiable. A high proportion of sexual offending is intra-familial. In many such cases, to target the perpetrator will inevitably result in the exposure of the victim. It is also readily foreseeable that this state-facilitated vigilantism will result in the targeting of innocent people who have been mistaken for sex offenders identified on the website.

Daniel’s Law is modelled on its American cousin, Megan’s Law (versions of which have proliferated on a state-by-state basis across the USA over the last 20 years). There is now a significant corpus of research into the effectiveness of these laws, and the evidence is in: they do not reduce the incidence of sexual offending, the type of offending, or recidivism.

This is, no doubt, why Megan’s Law has not been adopted in other similar countries, such as Canada, the UK or — until now —  Australia.

Make no mistake: on this issue, the Northern Territory Attorney-General has defied the collective wisdom of his fellow attorneys-general of every political persuasion, in every other Australian jurisdiction. It is trite to observe that in our federal system, in which freedom of movement across state and territory borders is constitutionally protected, such a scheme would only be effective if it were supported by a network of national legislation, as is the existing child sex offender reporting and registration scheme.

The NTSOPW will provoke alarm by ramping up paranoia about and hatred towards sex offenders, whom Elferink wasted no time in comparing to the lepers of old. His proposed leper-colony solution is to make them social pariahs and to exclude them from civil society.

Putting to one side the odiousness of inciting odium, this approach has another, more insidious effect: it reinforces the stranger-danger stereotype that sex offenders are “out there”, when, as is now so well recognised, children are at far greater risk from those they know and trust than from some raincoated monster hiding in the shrubbery.

Ironically, although the NTSOPW will undoubtedly make us more alarmed, it may well also make us less alert.

Peter Fray

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