By TYLER DAWSON
Stephen Harper has announced (Video) that his government will create a database of sex offenders who target children in Canada that the public can search through, once Parliament returns on Oct. 16.
The National Sex Offender Registry that the RCMP currently operates is not available to the public. While Harper did not give extensive details for implementing his scheme for a searchable database, it is cause for grave concern that it’s even under contemplation.
“We do not understand why child predators do the heinous things they do, and in all frankness, we don’t particularly care to,” Harper said in his remarks.
- And that is one of the problems! You don't want to understand it so that you can potentially fix it, or put a major dent in sexual abuse.
This latest move in the Conservatives’ “tough on crime” (Website, PDF) agenda ignores the experiences of countries that do have publicly searchable databases and displays a breathtaking disregard for the rights that Canadians have, even those convicted of abhorrent crimes.
Human Rights Watch, which has authored a report on sex offender registries in the United States, says that the majority of registry laws are “ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good.”
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There is a distinct brand of contempt and hatred reserved for sex offenders, and particularly those who target children. Some advocacy groups, such as Family Watchdog, believe that sex offenders pose such a danger to the public that we are entitled to information about these people, specifically, where they live, so that children can be kept safe.
This fear, and this contempt for sex offenders, tends not to manifest itself just in families taking extra precautions to keep their children safe, but also fuels an ugly brand of vigilantism. In the U.S, where sex offender registries are open to the public, there have been a number of vigilante murders that targeted convicted sex offenders.
To give the Canadian public unnecessary information about these criminals elevates the potential for self-appointed avengers, and exposes a demographic of criminal that is particularly vulnerable to public hatred.
Indeed, American sex offender registries need to state explicitly that they exist for “community safety purposes only and should not be used to threaten, intimidate, or harass.”
That this even needs to be said is reason enough to know that it’s a bad idea: we do not want, or need, Wild West-style vigilantism in Canada, and we shouldn’t be considering a system that enables that outcome.
The impetus for such a registry is the erroneous assumption that convicted sex offenders are overwhelmingly likely to commit crimes again if they are released into the general public.
Journalist Jacob Sullum, covering this issue in the U.S., writes that the attitude toward sex offenders is “driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety.”
Harper made his announcement in Vancouver, home of serial sex tourist _____, which makes for excellent political optics for an administration trying to push its crime agenda. However, such a proposal, and the deliberate attempt to instill fear, runs contrary to the research that the government itself has published and is just plain bad policy.
A 2004 report from Public Safety Canada states bluntly that “most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually over time,” and finds that a full 73 per cent of sex offenders do not reoffend within 15 years of their release. Outside that time period, the authors say, most offenders are too old, since there is an inversely proportional relationship between age and likelihood to offend (or they've died) and therefore, aren't really much threat.
It is the fear that sex offenders are out to strike again, and that they must be stopped, which has fueled murderous outbursts in other parts of the world. Canadians tend to believe, especially when considering events in the United States, that similar things can’t or won’t happen here.
That’s an irresponsible assumption, especially when it comes to questions of criminal law.
In 2006 Stephen Marshall committed suicide after police caught up with him for allegedly murdering two sex offenders in Maine, who he had tracked down through that state’s sex offender registry.
One of his victims, 24-year-old William Elliot, had ended up in the registry when he was 20 because he had sex with his girlfriend when she was just short of her 16th birthday — the age of consent in Maine.
The twist: Marshall was Canadian.
In Britain — perhaps closer to Canada culturally on the question of vigilantism than the United States — Christopher Hunnisett (Video) was convicted in 2012 for the murder of a gay man he thought was a pedophile. This was part of an elaborate scheme Hunnisett had devised to lure predators over the Internet and murder them.
To think that this isn’t a potential outcome in Canada is absolute foolishness. It is indeed possible that the Conservative government will conceive a narrowly tailored database that somehow balances public safety concerns with the necessity to protect released criminals from vigilantes.
However, until the government is able to explicitly identify a demonstrable need for increased information on sex offenders, it seems as though the Conservatives are simply pandering to a specific fear that could enable and justify vigilante action against sex offenders.
Tyler Dawson is a master of journalism student at Carleton University. He has covered federal politics for Postmedia News and has a particular interest in justice issues. He can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter.com/tylerrdawson.