Thursday, May 16, 2013

AUSTRALIA - Find a better way to keep our children safe

Original Article



Sex offenders are seen by the community as the scum of the Earth. They are considered to be monsters, people who should be abandoned by the community, locked up for a very long time, placed on a sex offenders register and, if they are ever released, monitored for life.

Recently, we read in the Herald Sun that new technology will mean that these heinous offenders will have tracking devices attached to them, so if they're not in jail, "we" know where they are.

But is there a better way? Does placing someone's name on a sex offenders register protect the community? Does putting an ankle bracelet on someone make our children safer? Let's look at some facts.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission's 2011 report on the Sex Offenders Registration Scheme found that there is little evidence to suggest that registration schemes are an effective means of reducing child sexual abuse because they deter offending. In fact, the report found that most sex offences are committed by people with no previous convictions for offences of that type.

Importantly, the report found that details about people who might be potentially dangerous reoffenders sit alongside those of offenders who pose no risk of harm, with police and child protection authorities having no reasonable means of allocating risk ratings, and investigative resources, to particular offenders. Despite that, at the current rate of increase, there will be approximately 10,000 registrations by 2020.

No doubt the new, you-beaut, whiz-bang one-size-fits-all tracking scheme will also grow like topsy with, as the Herald Sun reports, sex offenders, arsonists and boozers being monitored 24/7. That should make us all feel safe - shouldn't it?

The reality is quite different. Recently in Indianapolis in the US the systems at a GPS tracking company crashed.

Believe it or not, police throughout the nation had to scramble and lock up 16,000 criminals until the problem was solved. And of course GPS monitoring relies on someone actually watching and understanding the signals being transmitted from the device. As critics of the system in Vancouver make clear, GPS monitoring does not alert corrections officers when an offender commits an offence, but merely indicates their location.

Again, I suspect, as with the registration scheme there will be no reasonable means of allocating risk and investigative resources. While the policy might, during a 24-hour news cycle, have the objective of making people think the Government is tough, and will make everyone safer from these deviants, it's not and it won't.

There is a better way, but it's hard and it involves the community not abandoning these people.

Circles of Support and Accountability, or CoSA, is a community-orientated, restorative justice-based reintegration program that assists people in their effort to re-enter society after a period of incarceration for a sexual offence. It exists in Nova Scotia, Canada as well as in some parts of the UK and USA.

A "circle" involves three to five trained volunteers from the community who commit themselves to forming a circle around, supporting and holding accountable the offender or "core member".

The circle meets regularly to facilitate the core member's practical needs such as access to medical services, assistance with housing and employment and providing emotional support. In return, the core member commits to open communication with the circle regarding his identified risk factors, problematic behaviour and day-to-day problems in an effort to end his offending and increase public safety.

The motto of CoSA is No more Victims: No one is Disposable. Early evaluations suggest that the approach works with massive reductions in recidivism, or reoffending rates, compared with offenders not involved in a "circle".

Yes, it's easy to dispose of people who commit crimes, but to do so places a big financial burden on all of us, and to what end? Crime rates rise while our prison population escalates and more money is spent on registers and tracking people.

If the community is serious about wanting to be safer and reducing crime, then surely we have to do more than just listen to the "tough on crime" rhetoric of our politicians. It's hard, but we have to get involved.

As a CoSA volunteer said: "I used to be like everyone else. I hated these guys. Then I met one. He's a human being. Once I understood that, I could not turn my back on him. I hate what he's done but if he's willing to do his part, I'm willing to be there to help him. I don't want there to be any more victims."

And shouldn't that be the bottom line?

Rob Hulls was Victoria's attorney-general and now is director of RMIT's Centre for Innovative Justice

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