Community Notification of Sex Offenders
Very few topics provoke as much emotion and public concern as that of a released sex offender living amongst a given community. In the past two days, media articles, and the Police Minister’s comments, have shown this clearly. Different countries have grappled with this societal anxiety in a number of ways. In historical times, responses to sexual victimisation included mob lynching and capital punishment. More recently, less violent measures have been adopted for the release of sexual offenders such as half-way houses, preventative detention, offender registration and community notification.
While the protection of our children is naturally at the forefront of our minds, it is equally important to consider whether these measures are simply an emotional response rather than a logical solution. Queensland alreday has a detailed and onnerous registration scheme for dealing with released sex offenders. In my view, Queensland must not go further and carelessly replicate the United States’ community notification schemes. The experience of the US shows that community notfication schemes are unsupported by evidence or research showing that they minimise the number of offences. Further, it gives the communtiy a false sense of security while at the same time, it encourages vigilante behaviour which, in the US, has been extreme including murder, suicide, burning of houses and public rallies outside homes. The risk of this type of behaviour should never be ignored.
The biggest concern for me is that community notification and perceptions of victims rights overshadow the reported evidence that offenders are less liekly to rehabilitate if they are constantly harrassed and labelled wihtin the community. One US study (Alvin Malesky & Jeanmarie Keim, ‘Mental Health Professionals’ Perspectives on Sex Offender Registry Web Sites’ (2001) Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 13(1), 53-63) found that over 80% of mental health professionals do not believe that sex offender registry websites will change the number of children who are sexually abused each year. A number of different reasons were provided by the mental health professionals to the study. They included the fact that child sex offenders are motivated by strong drives and will not be deterred by public notification, a large proportion of sex offenders won’t appear on the website and a lot of people don’t access sex offender registers. These results should caution legislators and the public from believing that sex offender registers are the answer to decreasing the number of children who are sexually abused each year.
Australia, especially through the emergence of private notification schemes, appears to be going down the US path. This is a concerning fact. A consideration of the Canadian and UK situation demonstrates that these jurisdictions are also falling down the slippery slope towards public community notification. To ensure this does not happen in Australia, Governments need to be receptive to the problems identified and look to alternatives. Failing to do this will simply result in the enactment of more populist, emotionally driven legislation which does little to protect the community and carries with it an array of negative effects. Australia has the benefit of learning from the mistakes of the United States. The importance of this lesson can not be overstated.
For a more detailed look at this issue, please look at my article on this point under the publications tab of this blog.