The Case Against a Sexual Offender Registry

by on 4 October, 2016

Erika Salmon makes the case against a sexual offender registry in Australia, with a detailed of the negative consequences a registry in the United States. Not only are they ineffective, she argues, but they fundamentally erode constitutional liberty.

Ever since the implementation of the Sex Offender Registry in the U.S. civil liberties have been completely eroded, they are also completely ineffective in preventing and reducing sex crimes. The Sex Offender Registry has eroded constitutional rights to privacy and life while neglecting its core mission to reduce and prevent sexual offences committed. Although the Sex Offender Registry in Australia is a relatively construct, and its public access severely limited, Derryn Hinch expresses sentiments to expanding both the registry and its public availability. This is not only unjust, but as in the US could pave the rode to absurdity, as seemingly harmless crimes are registered under the registry as well.

After the United States introduced the Sex Offender Registry in the 1990s, Australia quickly followed. Since gaining legitimacy and control, the constitutional right to privacy and even to life has been eroded by seemingly well-intentioned government policies. Public access to these registries has only been recently granted in Australia, starting as early as 2012 in Western Australia. This is comparatively better than the US, immediately allowing access to the public in the 1990’s. Following the American example, Australian states and territories insisted on limitations for offenders for up to 15 years after conviction. This included where they can live, who they can associate and what they can read. The consequences of an individual being placed on the sex offender registry by a court are profound. Our courts and legislatures discriminate against sex offenders by treating them differently to others who commit serious offences like murder or fraud.

In 2012, Western Australia was the first of the Australian states and territories to permit public access to specific areas of the sex offender register. This was done through the Community Protection Website (CPW) and the WA government, establishing clear parameters on the level of information available to the public. The register has also inbuilt security and safety mechanisms requiring anyone seeking information to first provide their own. As such, members of the public could only seek information about a convicted repeat offender living in the vicinity of their community. This process enables police to tag any information released and monitor any misuse of information. Recently, the NT government have committed to creating a publicly accessible website listing the names and details of child sex offenders and child homicide offenders. This is all in the name of protecting our children of course, but what’s to stop policymakers from going further? To introducing the same over-arching and over-bearing definitions and legislations concerning sexual offences? In low populated areas, this may also create unnecessary risk for family members of the offender and even make reporting less likely if abuse is perpetrated by a family member.

Currently in the U.S. over one fourth of the people we label as sex offenders are juveniles themselves. The registry currently has over 800,000 people on it, which means that over 200,000 people get put on the registry while they are still in secondary school. The punishment and stigma that can follow them for decades after is inexcusable. A study by Human Rights Watch gave an example of a young boy, Jacob, being found guilty of inappropriately touching his sister when he was 11.Now, 26, Jacob is still on the sex-offender registry, still unable to live near a school, playground or park. (Despite the fact that multiple studies have found residency restrictions redundant in preventing sex crimes. Due to the inherent stigma, and public access of his crimes, he also has an extremely difficult time finding work. The Human Rights Watch concluded, “his life continues to be defined by an offense he committed at age 11”- an offence that most likely didn’t indicate anything other than a young boy’s curiosity and his needing guidance.

Victims of this regime have been persecuted for seemingly harmless acts, such as, drunkenly urinating in public, consensual sex as teenagers, hiring a prostitute, streaking and even sexting. It has become almost absurdist in nature, bureaucratic and governmental tyranny at its finest. The public perception is that “sex offenders” are just child sexual abusers, but the term has expanded ridiculously and considered less than human due to this. In America today, your child is more likely to be labelled as a sex offender, and not be abused by one and isn’t that just twisted?

Sex offender registers were originally built for prevention, not punishment. They were set up as a tool for parents to protect children from child abusers and did not include every sexual offence committed.

In its current form, there is conclusive evidence that registries have little to no impact on reducing criminal sexual behaviour.  Registries were never built for punishment, but as a preventative tool. The original goal of the registries was to protect communities not to further punish the offenders. However, in the case of Brock Turner, it is easy to see the supposed benefits of such a registry. Derryn Hinch of the Justice Party was recently elected to Senate and plans on expanding the WA CPW to a national scale, as well as making all information publicly available. Despite Derryn Hinch’s sentiments of hating vigilantism, what measures will he put in place to protect these offenders? And as he’s basing it on the US system will increase stigmatisation as well as even a governmental encouragement for active prejudice and discrimination follows as well?

In the US, people on the Sex Offender Registry are required to document their movements from state to state, and depending on the state and seriousness of the crime, his name, picture, and information will be publicly listed – permanently. When the registry was first introduced, “sexual predators” were seen as not able to control their urges, and thus citizens needed to modify their own behaviour to prevent crime. The idea that criminals can’t control their own behaviour was replaced by attention to institutional and cultural failures that allow rapes to happen and go unpunished, despite this fact the registry is still going strong.

During the “predator” hype, there were mass allegations and a culture of fear, in lawmaker’s eyes predators could not control themselves, thus all the government could do was help the public protect itself. Activists who originally supported the laws have now begun to oppose it, as they never intended the registry to expand so far beyond child molesters. Theoretically, it’s illegal to discriminate someone on the Sex Offender Registry, however, the limitations they face is above and beyond what others committing crimes are restricted to. It would make sense if the limitations placed on the offender are tailored to the specific crime, but as those on the Sex Offender Registry vary so much, the restrictions become aggregate, and that is wherein the problem lies.

The intended benefit of sex offender registries was intentioned as a greater protection of children — with fewer opportunities for recidivism, sexual predators to attack children, there were supposed to be fewer sex crimes against them. That hasn’t happened. The evidence on registries’ ability to prevent sex crimes is mixed at best. The evidence that residential restrictions prevent sex crimes is non-existent. Studies have estimated that recidivism rates among sex offenders are between 5 to 15 percent, which is relatively low compared to other crimes. Contrary to public perception, the vast majority of people on the registry never offend again. Sex offender registries are generally of little utility and a 2008 study found that registries not only do not show any demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offences but is also extremely costly and does not represent value for taxpayers’ money. Sex offender registry laws are draconian and irrational, especially given the evidence that they have little to no impact on sex offending rates.

The concept of the “stranger danger” focused predator has since been rebuffed as the most common type of sexual abuse is at the hands of an intimate partner or family member is statistically more likely. However, due to the strict registry laws, victims are less inclined to report the abuse due to the permanent collateral damage that that entails. It is not an exaggeration to say that the combination of legal restrictions and social stigma has destroyed lives. Sex offender registries don’t prevent crimes; they merely further punish the offender further.

By putting people who commit sex crimes on a permanent list, the law isn’t only supporting the idea that they’re incapable of controlling their urges, it’s also restricting more specific structural and institutional reformist responses that might better address the reality of sexual harm. The existence of sex-offender registries doesn’t change the fact that rape survivors are often treated more sceptically by the police, than victims of any other crime. It doesn’t address the failure of institutions to treat sexual assault cases with criminal seriousness. And it reinforces the attitude that a normal man couldn’t possibly be a rapist.

Currently, sex offender registries that were originally meant to protect our children are now acting as sacrificial lambs to the nanny-state and the do-gooders of the political and legislature spectrum. The quote “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been more relevant than now. Now, underage sexual curiosity and sex have been criminalised and we are crucifying them on the political alters we built to protect them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, the most common age that people are charged is 14. By trying to protect our children from the monsters under the bed, we have allowed big government to introduce laws that punish juveniles for innocent curiosity. Social conventions and perceived rites of passage have been outlawed and for what? Registries are not preventing crimes or reducing recidivism rates, but they are ruining lives. The government is perceiving children are both the victim and the perpetrator and in turn is making a hit list. Inspired by puritanical American ideals, is that what is to come for Australian sex registries?

Politicians and law enforcement need to acknowledge that people can do dumb things, even sexual things and not be irredeemable monsters. Right now, that’s not a big political talking point, but it should be. In an incident in New Jersey: Two 14-year-olds pulled down their pants and sat on a 12-year-olds face. It is disgusting and reprehensible, but the punishment was even more so. Under Megan’s Law, they are now on the sex offenders’ registry for life. An appellate court upheld the sentence in 2011, consequently both these young men will be on the registry until they die. They’ll be treated are perennial perverts for something they did as adolescents. Frankly, the age that people are being registered as sex-offenders is appalling, but so is the registry itself and despite that is been shown over and over again that it does not make our children any safer it continues to become more extreme and over-reaching. It is pointlessly excessive and give politicians the easy way to act as if they care about children and safety, while actually ruining people’s lives.

Sex offender registry laws are draconian and irrational, especially given the evidence that they have little to no impact on sex offending rates. The idea that a person who is convicted of a sex offence that occurred 30 or 40 years ago and should be placed on a register today and be subject to its hardship is not only retrospective but completely goes against the rule of law. Placing a person on a sex offender register should be viewed as a punishment given the negative impact it has on an individual’s privacy, freedom of movement, economic liberty, and even playing PokemonGo and if the offence occurred prior to the register becoming law then it is unfair to impose this punishment now, this one-size-fits-all approach has pretended to answer all problems – when in reality, answers none. These severe laws and restrictions have led to suicides and executions via vigilantes, the state has become the monster under the bed for these children and is ultimately robbing them of everything for little community benefit.

These laws are now, not so much as protecting them from predators as they are perpetrating them as such. The rise of “youthful sex offenders” is not the result of our kids becoming more perverted or aggressive, but rather criminalising consensual sex between those under the age of 18. They are criminals not because they necessarily violated the life, liberty, or property of another person (unlike are the US government), but rather because politicians are defining them as criminals. People from both sides of the political spectrum are supporting these laws, all in the name of “saving the children”, and extending totalitarian policies of the state to further control people’s lives and values. The sex offender registry has turned into the new Salem witch hunts, it is the new age of McCarthyism and anyone can be the next victim.

The good thing is that most of these horror stories are the products of an American puritan regime and are in no way occurring in Australia. But, how long till our ideals mirror those of the US? Will our ‘good intentions’ get the better of us and follow the American example? Introducing sex offender registries in Australia is discrimination against one type of criminal over others, with little or no reduction in criminal behaviour.

America is rethinking the size and control of these registries and Australia policymakers and courts should follow suit before it’s too late.

Erika Salmon is a NSW Regional Coordinator at Australia and New Zealand for Liberty and is also undertaking an internship with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.

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