Yesterday, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced his intention for a national “child-sex register”, claiming it would be the “toughest crack down on peadophiles in Australia’s history”.
These are bold claims by the Minister, presumably supported by evidence. However a review of the evidence, and past experience in other jurisdictions where public sex offender registers exist, simply do not support that it would increase community protection, reduce reoffending, or act as a significant deterrent.
A few facts about child sex assault and sex offending generally:
- The vast majority of sex offences and assaults are committed by someone known to the victim or the victim’s family, with studies reporting around three-quarters of sexual assault victims knew their offender, and around one-third were assaulted by a family member.
- 83% of child sexual assault victims aged under 14 were assaulted by someone they knew, and only 10% were assaulted by someone unknown.
- Despite common belief, rates of reoffending for sex offenders is relatively low compared to other offenders.
Source: Australian Institute of Criminology, 2018.
The notion that a public sex offender register, identifying photos of offenders, their area of residence, personal details and the nature of their offending, will improve public safety, is simply not supported by the evidence.
In the USA, since as early as 1994, public sex offender registers have been in operation in various states, and at different levels. Empirical studies into their effectiveness have been mixed, but significantly:
- Several seperate studies have found that public registers did not reduce sex offence recidivism.
- A review of the studies by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that although there is some evidence it has a general deterrent effect, there is “little evidence that the US policies have reduced reoffending among registered sex offenders; in fact, some studies have shown that [it has] increased sex offender recidivism”.
Problems with Public Registers
There are a number of concerns with these registers. For example, there is a real danger that public sex offender registers will lead to an false sense of security. This is particularly given the overwhelming majority of offences against young people are committed by someone known or close to the victim, often a family member.
Further, public shaming and ongoing victimisation of sex offenders can lead to isolation, exclusion from employment and opportunities, lack of stable housing and positive social connections. These are all factors that significantly increase the chance of reoffending.
Issues also exists concerning offences such as “sexting” or other offences committed by people at a young age (whilst still over 18), effectively being stigmatised for life.
NSW already has one of the toughest child sex offender registers in the country. Offenders are subjected to regular police visits, must advise police of all electronic devices, email and social media accounts, phone numbers, car registration details and addresses. Penalties for breaching there obligations are severe.
There is little, if any, evidence to suggest that a public register will work. In fact it is likely to draw police resources away from current priorities. Further, it will stigmatise one-off offenders after they have served their sentences and the focus is on rehabilitation and ensuring they do not reoffend.
Note: References to studies and statistics are drawn from the Australian Government’s own report: “What impact do public sex offender registers have on the community?” – Australian Institute of Criminology – May 2018