By Greg Barns
Ostracism and fear of violence only makes registered sex offenders more likely to reoffend, writes Greg Barns.
Sex offenders are a political hot button and the Western Australian Liberal Government of Colin Barnett pressed it this week when it launched the first Australian register of sex offenders that allows people to seek photos and address details of offenders.
This is an undesirable precedent; it will not reduce sex offending rates, but instead lead to vigilantism, violence and insecurity within communities.
The Western Australian experiment consists of a website which shows photos and last known addresses of repeat sex offenders whom the authorities can no longer locate. The site also allows members of the community to request photos of sex offenders they think are living in their area, and for parents to inquire whether a person who has unsupervised access to their child is on the register.
Until now, Australian governments, despite lobbying from some in the media and among victims groups, have resisted the establishment for US-style sex offender registers which allow the public to find out where offenders are living. There is a good reason for doing so, and that is because the US experience has shown that this type of register is counterproductive.
In Washington State, one of the first US jurisdictions to introduce a public sex offender registry, there have been two men go to jail for vigilante killings of individuals on the register in the past decade, including as recently as June this year.
Vigilantism and harassment of sex offenders in the US is commonplace since the introduction of public registers in 1990. In Virginia last year, a man was charged after trying to run over a person on that state's register. In Massachusetts last year, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the house where a registered sex offender lived. There are also numerous cases of registered sex offenders having their homes and front lawns graffitied by nearby residents who want the world to know that a convicted sex offender lives there.
Mr Barnett and his government will no doubt argue that unlike most of the US registers, which are open to all members of the public, in Western Australia, access will be on a needs to know basis and this will reduce the chances of violence and vigilantism.
Such a claim is simply wrong. There would be nothing stopping a person getting information about a registered sex offender living in their area passing on that information to all and sundry.
We ought to go back a step here and ask ourselves why it is that we have sex offender registers, but not registers for people who commit burglaries or assaults. One rejoinder is that sex offenders, particularly those who commit crimes against children, cannot be rehabilitated as easily as the individual who has a drug habit and commits crime to feed that habit.
- Which is false of course.
The nature of sex offending, it could be argued, means that the public has a right to know if such an individual is living in their neighbourhood, and that the rights of sex offenders to live their lives peacefully and without being harassed is secondary to the rights of parents with young children.
While there is a superficial attractiveness about this argument, it ignores the fact that sex offenders, including child sex offenders, are less likely to reoffend if the environment in which they live in the community is a supportive one.
A recently published paper by Heather Cucolo and Michael Perlin from the New York Law School has concluded that, "Only through therapeutic jurisprudence, a focus on rehabilitation, and a dedication to authentically treating individuals who have committed sexual offenses with humanity, will it be possible to reduce recidivism and foster successful community reintegration."
This is not a controversial finding. As a lawyer who has worked with child and adult sex offenders over the past decade, it is self-evident that if the environment in which offenders live outside of jail is one where they are welcomed, not ostracised, and supported, not shunned, then the risk of recidivism is much reduced.
It is stress, born of isolation and fear of violence, which increases the risk for would-be victims of sex offences.
The right of children and their families to be protected from sex offending is undermined by WA-style sex offender registers because of their negative impact on offenders and the communities in which they live.
Allowing the public to have details of where sex offenders live is simply a recipe for violence and hatred. This is the American experience.
Why is the Barnett Government inflicting this failed policy tool on Western Australians? To garner support ahead of a forthcoming state election seems to be the only answer given that there is little or no empirical support for their venture.
Greg Barns is a barrister and Criminal Law Spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here.