Last week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced plans to create a federal public register of child sex offenders, a move he promised would deter criminals and ensure “parents are not in the dark”.
But the response from advocates and experts to the minister’s proposal has been muted, and for good reason. Evidence from countries where similar programs have been implemented suggests registers not only have limited deterrent effect but also leave offenders doubly punished, forced to live out their days as social pariahs long after their prison sentence has ended.
What does the proposal actually say?
Dutton promised that any register would take a “balanced approach” — the names, faces, and broad geographic location of child sex offenders would be included, while their individual addresses would not. But at this point, critical questions remaining unanswered — we don’t know what specific crimes might land someone on the register, or whether they will remain there for life.
Dutton claimed the government was still consulting with various stakeholders while crafting the law. According to Arthur Moses, president of the Law Council of Australia, however, the organisation was given a “completely inadequate” 36 hour turnaround time to respond to the proposal.
Where has it been tried?
Dutton’s proposal is hardly a new idea, and more limited registers already exist in some states.
Western Australia, for example, recently created a website which allows parents to obtain photographs of offenders in their area, apply for information about offenders who have failed reporting duties or inquire about a specific person who might have regular contact with their child.
South Australia currently has a register of offenders who have failed to report to police, or whose whereabouts are unknown. Governments have also flirted with the idea of a complete public register like this before. In 2014 the Northern Territory government announced plans to create the first public register in Australia in honour of Daniel Morcombe, a Queensland teenager murdered by a convicted sex offender out on parole. While the proposal had the backing of the Morcombe family, it drew criticism from legal bodies, who said it would impede rehabilitation efforts and create the risk of vigilante justice. Then-prime minister Tony Abbott also weighed in, arguing such a register was unnecessary, and the proposal never saw light of day.
Internationally, a number of countries have enacted various forms of register. In the United Kingdom, Sarah’s Law — which was named after an 8-year-old girl murdered by a convicted sex offender in 2000 — allows parents to ask police if someone with access to their child has been convicted or suspected of a child sex crime, much like the Western Australian legislation.
In the United States, a suite of laws provide far greater degrees of disclosure. The Jacob Wetterling act and Megan’s Law, both products of a Clinton-era tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice, created mandatory public registers across the country. The type of offender listed on registers differs from state to state. The Adam Walsh act, passed in 2006, broadened the scope of public registers to include an offender’s name, address, date of birth and place of employment. Registers also exist in South Korea and the Maldives.
Do they work?
The response to Dutton’s announcement divided advocates. The foundation started by Daniel Morcombe’s family, who lobbied for the failed NT laws, welcomed the proposal, while Hetty Johnson, founder of child protection organisation Bravehearts’, dismissed it as a “stunt”.
A 2007 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, which examined the impact of the US legislative framework, concluded that the “evidence base” for Megan’s Law was “weak”. The central premise underpinning these registers does not stand up to scrutiny. Contrary to the popular narrative about serial “predators”, sex offenders tend to reoffend less than other criminals. A 2011 study found that adult sex offenders in the US had a recidivism rate of 13%, compared with 40% for the general criminal population.
The particularly blunt American model has caused a host of unintended consequences for offenders. Registers often take a one-size-fits-all approach, meaning child rapists and people guilty of far less serious offences like public masturbation have both ended up on registers, and are both indistinguishably branded for life as “sex offenders”. Being publicly labelled a sex offender can be something of a life sentence, with many offenders facing social ostracism and joblessness well after their imprisonment term has ended.
Then there’s the real threat of vigilantism. According to a US study, 15% of respondents were assaulted after being exposed as sex offenders. The risk of mob justice was also outlined as a concern in the 2007 AIC study. The problem in the US has gotten so bad that some of the earliest advocates for registers — like the parents of Jacob Wetterling, the boy whose abduction led to the first US federal register — have turned against the laws they once pushed so strongly for.
At this point, Dutton’s proposal is more pre-election thought bubble than coherent policy. Still, there is plenty of evidence that although such registers play well in the public imagination, their effectiveness is limited. If anything, the US experience provides a blueprint for how to get a well-intentioned policy badly wrong.