By Robyn Urback
The federal Conservatives have announced they are continuing their pursuit of the lowest of low-hanging fruit: registered sex offenders. The Tougher Penalties for Sexual Predators Act, which was formally tabled in the House of Commons Feb. 26, includes nine proposals for dealing with those convicted of sexual offences, including increasing prison sentences for certain child sexual offences and harsher penalties for violations of release conditions. Some of the proposals, quite appropriately, assign greater severity to a system of punishment that if often derided as far too lenient. But nestled among the fairly uncontroversial amendments is a proposal to create a public sex offender registry that would be accessible to anyone in Canada. While Canada already has a database of registered sex offenders, this proposal would make the names and personal information of high-risk sexual offenders available to anyone who wishes to seek them out.
Sex offenders are surely the easiest of targets for the Tories, who relied on the consensus of ill-will toward them in trying to push through their 2012 online surveillance bill, when then-safety minister Vic Toews foolishly suggested the bill’s critics were siding with “child pornographers.” The Tories haven’t gone that far this time, but are framing their proposal for a public sex offender registry as a child safety initiative. “This isn’t to encourage vigilantism,” said Justice Minister Peter MacKay. “It’s to encourage protecting children from past proven behaviours.” One would hope longer prison sentences and tighter release conditions — which are covered in the bill’s other proposals — would offer that protection, not mom or dad logging onto an online database. But an at-your-fingertips list of sex offenders is just gravy on an easy-win bill for the Conservatives.
There’s just one problem: public registries of sex offenders have proven to be an abject failure in the United States. While cases of extreme vigilantism are rare, they do happen. Convicted felon Patrick Drum, for example, was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 after he killed two registered sex offenders in Washington because, according to Drum, “they deserved to die.” But more often, vigilante justice takes more subtle forms including harassment and vandalism, which forces many registered sex offenders out of communities and onto the streets. Countless studies show higher rates of recidivism among homeless offenders, and one report from the Journal of Law and Economics in 2011 found slightly higher rates of sex crimes in states where sex offender registries are made public. Why? Offenders have a much harder time reintegrating into normal society and embracing rehabilitation when their name is on a public list. Thus, they become more likely to reoffend.