By Emile Therien
On Sept. 16, Prime Minister Harper promised Canadians a national, online database accessible to the public listing the names of high-risk child sex-offenders to replace a patchwork of existing databases. Another proposed change announced by him would have such offenders planning to travel outside the country alert Canadian authorities before they leave, and who, in turn, may warn destination countries.
The prime minister said this registry will come into effect in this session of Parliament.
The problem with sex registries! Not only are these registries notoriously incomplete but they are also misguided and misdirected laws that cast far too wide a net, in the process preventing authorities from dealing with the really big problem at hand, that is, sexual abuse against children. Concerns have also been expressed that these laws focus on a relatively small number of high-risk offenders, in the process excluding the many "medium-risk" offenders who also pose a significant risk to children.
These laws are not evidence based policy, but rather reactions to high-profile crimes against children. Underlying these laws is the belief that notifying the public of the presence of sex offenders in their community allows citizens to take protective measures against potentially dangerous sex offenders who live nearby.
A study published in 2009 sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Justice, found there has been little detailed monitoring and evaluation to ascertain the effectiveness of these registries.
The study also found that most states have very little evidence of the actual impact of community notification on their jurisdiction. Also, there is little empirical evaluation to support any assumptions that exist about impacts on offender recidivism.
In addition, by focusing on a small number of offenders, these laws may detract attention from more common crimes such as intra-familial abuse, leaving parents and children more vulnerable to abuse from people known to them; there is also evidence that victims of intra-familial abuse may be deterred from reporting crimes because of fears related to community notification. The law of unintended consequences! The study also found there is very little monitoring of vigilantism against offenders, and although there have been few known incidents of harassment, it is likely that these crimes are under-reported and under-recorded.
The question must be asked - are these laws, with all their limitations, worth the costs of their very expensive monitoring and cumbersome enforcement requirements? A disturbing number of crimes that go unreported are sexual crimes against children. More than 95 per cent of sexual crimes against children are by family members (intrafamilial abuse) or at the hands of people they know. A statistically insignificant number of these attacks are ever reported, with the result that the number of charges and subsequent convictions resulting from these crimes, albeit very important, are few and far between.
More often than not, many laws are driven by hype, emotion and political expediency rather than sound empirical evidence. Sex-registry laws which are certainly not evidence-based may very well fit into this category.
They are a classic case of "feel good legislation" which makes people feel safer without delivering tangible safety benefits. Protecting children from all forms of abuse must become a greater societal priority. Child protection laws must be promoted, given adequate resources, both from a financial and human resources point of view, and enforced.
It is scary and unthinkable to consider the consequences of failing to deal with child abuse when this, in the grand scheme of things, continues to be a low national priority. This challenge resides with the prime minister. Is he up to it?
Monday, November 4, 2013
CANADA - Trouble with registries