N Touch
Tuesday 23 April 2019
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Commentary

Can there be justice in a sex offender register?

ANGELIQUE V NIXON

THE GOVERNMENT has introduced new legislation to amend the Sexual Offences Act, requiring that detailed data about people convicted of a wide range of sexual offences against adults or children, here or abroad, be entered into a national sexual offender register managed by the police.

Additionally, the name, picture, date of birth, address and convictions of every offender would be available to the public online. To be removed after a specified registration period, an offender would apply to the court, and the public be notified.

The new legislation also calls for a passport stamp for child sex offenders.

Sex offender registration has been law since 2000, but nothing was done to develop a registry.

A few senators, in debating the bill this past week, voiced concerns about the justness of some of these measures. Some talked about prevention and rehabilitation. And much public debate has focused on the problems of a public online registry, and the naming and shaming of perpetrators.

So I wonder about the voices of those of us who have experienced sexual violence. I wonder about those of us who have experienced sexual abuse as children perpetrated by family members. I see our persistent traumas and scars being named as the reason for the sex offender register, as a way to protect us and prevent other offences. I wonder about those of us who sought justice and accountability from a system and families that tried to silence us.

But I hear no one asking us what we might want.

As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I have often thought about the best forms of justice for the family members who violated my trust and my body.

Prison or a sex offender register never came to mind. I just wanted them to get help and to never do it again, to never harm another person. I wanted my family to believe me. And I wanted to ensure that healing happened for all of us.

I didn’t have a language for this until I learned about restorative justice strategies through doing community work on prisoner rights and then on survivor empowerment.

The hardest question, to a survivor of gender-based violence, is often related to punishment and justice. Many of us understand that those who have harmed and violated others are themselves survivors of violence and have been harmed. Many of us are still healing and searching for justice.

And so justice does not look like a register with no rehabilitation or prevention plan. A register does not take into account generations of trauma. A register cannot address the ways we exist in Caribbean families in cycles of violence and harm, silence and shame.

Given our high rates in TT of sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, with repeat offenders, a registry for police and the public might seem like a promising solution.

While the intention is to support police efforts in solving sex crimes and to alert the public when an offender has been released, many questions and concerns remain.

Does a sex register actually solve and prevent sexual offences? Will a sex offender register make us feel safe? What about rehabilitation? What about the problem of reporting and convictions, and lack of faith in a broken criminal justice system? And what about survivors?

Registration mechanisms will not prevent the majority of sex crimes, nor do they get at the root causes of sexual violence.

In the case of incest and child sexual abuse within families, perpetrators (and sometimes their histories of abuse) are known. Even with rape, many offenders are familiar to their victims.

The culture that normalises sexual abuse in families, the shame and silencing, the fear of reporting, the ineffectiveness of investigation and prosecution, and what we do to rehabilitate those who offend and harm – those are the problems I would like policy and legislation to address.

Restorative justice is a system of accountability that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation. A restorative justice approach to sexual violence, especially with child sexual abuse, focuses on intervention and prevention (sustainable and long-term), a commitment to safety, healing, and accountability, and transformation of the social conditions that give rise to violence.

This means getting at the root causes and finding community-led solutions. This means believing (and listening to) survivors and ending the stigma and silence associated with sexual violence and abuse. And it means investing in professional training and experts in restorative justice approaches to develop and implement new systems of justice.

A national sex offenders register with no clear plan for rehabilitation or prevention is like putting Mercurochrome on a gaping wound.

I hope the Attorney General will sit and listen to the survivors he wants to champion, and provide the opportunity for others in the Parliament to do so as well. This bill should not go forward without a restorative-justice approach that prioritises survivors.

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