THE Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill 2019 tabled by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi last week proposes to authorise the police to share information about sex offenders online. Overall, the bill is a step in the right direction. But it raises questions that should be subject to careful scrutiny.
People will find themselves in the registry upon conviction for a “registrable offence” listed in a schedule. This is important: only people who have been found guilty are captured. However, while sharing information will help communities to be more vigilant, public disclosure creates complications.
Firstly, there is the risk of the perpetrator being placed in double jeopardy. Considering the fact that the registry is for people who have already served a sentence, requiring them to subsequently report to a police station while also listing them on a website would seem to be the modern-day equivalent of the treatment handed down to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
At the same time, international studies have shown sex offenders are often repeat offenders. Assuming this is the case locally, the bill strikes a correct balance by making an offender report for a period that is proportionate to the length of their sentence.
Former Independent senator Diana Mahabir-Wyatt has warned convictions have sometimes been later overturned by DNA evidence. While this is a reason for caution, it is not decisive since most convictions, including those for murder in open court, are potentially subject to such reversals.
What is dangerous is the fact that public disclosure will not affect only the offender, but also their family and associates. The law is rigorous in its methods used to interrogate the truth, but too often people are not as clinical. We come to prejudicial conclusions based on subjective assessments.
A recent hearing of Parliament’s Human Rights, Equality and Diversity Joint Select Committee also raised a point legislators need to consider. The committee heard troubling statistics relating to child pornography. Of 69 cases reported in the education system alone, the bulk was perpetrated by girls who created and distributed the material. Thus, some might say children can potentially find themselves on the sex offenders registry if convicted of the child pornography offence set out in the Children’s Act.
While a posting can be removed, nothing on the internet is ever really deleted. This means the prejudice of an initial appearance on the website can last a lifetime, regardless of subsequent good behaviour and rehabilitation.
If Parliament can iron-out the details, this registry might be useful. Yet, will it make a dent? Police say from 2013 to 2018, some 3,757 people were victims of sex offences. Yet, fewer than half were solved. According to the AG, some 2,915 victims of sexual assault have been waiting more than ten years for their case to start.
For the registry to register, police must do better.