A public sex offender register

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RegisterWritten by Bill Doogue. Partner, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers.

Recently announced proposals for a publically accessible sex offender register are a perfect example of emotionally driven, rather than evidence-based, criminal justice policy.

Whilst it may seem intuitive to want to ‘name and shame’ sex offenders, the research shows that public notification registers have little to no impact on the rate of sex offending in the community, and carry with them a myriad of unintended harms.

A comprehensive evaluation of “Megan’s Law” in the United States, which allows for publically available information on sex offenders in certain states, found that the laws did not have a clear impact on sex offences when implemented. In fact, some studies have found a positive correlation with sex offences – that is notification schemes increased the risk of reoffending.

Liberty Victoria have noted that a public notification scheme is likely to open the door to vigilantism and appears ignorant of the many conditions currently placed on registered sex offenders.

Moreover, public registers ‘doubly punish’ offenders by forcing them to carry the consequences of their offending for a lifetime even after serving a term of imprisonment.

A public register is also likely to cause harm to innocent parties, who may also be victims of offending.
One study by the University of Louisville in Kentucky on Megan’s Law found that over half of family members living with a registered offender experienced harassment from neighbors.

Moreover, the study found that children of registered offenders reported negative, differential treatment by teachers and classmates as a result of the new laws.

Victorians are naturally concerned about the harm caused by sexual abuse, however we cannot allow our criminal laws to be driven by our most punitive impulses. Public policy must follow the evidence on what is best practice to rehabilitate offenders and protect the community.

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