Hide sex offenders from public

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.

INITIAL proposals to stamp a public warning on sex offenders passports and to publicly name them on a register were opposed by the report of a Senate Special Select Committee on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill 2019 laid in the Senate last month.

The committee's "final version" of the bill deleted the Attorney General's original proposal that members of the public have access to the register both online and at their local police station. It also struck out the original call for the passport of anyone on the register be stamped with the words "sex offender."

These two changes were proposed in contributions by several social actors, although the Police Service and the NGO Vision on Mission urged public access to the register.

The final bill in clause 47(3) said, "The register shall not be accessible to the public."

Pressure group CAISO said the State's focus on offenders should be on healing rather than punishment, even as they urged sex education in schools to help stem future cases of abuse. "We recommend against general public access to a register, given foreseeable risks of vigilantism, collateral harm and stigma to offenders' victims, families and geographical communities, and its use by offenders for criminal networking."

A coalition of NGOs that met to discuss the bill suggested a restriction on public access to the register, based on protection of the public, the privacy interests of sex offenders and the public interest in their rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. "Access to the register should be controlled to prevent harm being done to third parties such as families of sex offenders or to convicted offenders through vigilante actions."

The Office of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) opposed public access, in line with the UK, Canada and New Zealand. "In the interests of restorative justice and to not create an additional problem of vigilantism, the registry (should) not be made public and be kept as a law enforcement tool."

The Institute of Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, said some studies showed public access does more harm than good.

"Research on the effectiveness of public sex offender registries are overwhelmingly mixed, yet a number assert that sex registers do not prevent recidivism. Some studies suggest that public registers do more harm than good for community safety, can even cause recidivism and may lead to higher rates of sex crimes."

An investigation of public registers over 10 years in 15 states across the US reveals that public notifications such as a list of offenders on the Internet may undo sex crime prevention that the registry is supposed to enable.

"Specifically, while the fear of being subjected to public notification may potentially prevent first time sex offenders, released offenders were likely to re-commit an offence after being put on a public register. Conversely, the research (in the UK and Australia) shows that private registers can be effective in discouraging sex offender recidivism."

This research says there is no evidence of the effectiveness of most registration models, so other initiatives must be tailored to individual offenders and their varying levels of re-offending risk and susceptibility to rehabilitation.

"There are lessons here we can use and build from in our own debates over a public sex offender register.

"While a register (public or private) may be one response to sexual offences, it must be accompanied by a range of other methods and approaches to prevention and harm reduction for offenders, victims and community." The IGDS supported a restorative justice and case-based approach to justice for sexual and trafficking offences.

The Organisation of Abused and Battered Individuals (OABI) said details of a registrant revealed online should be limited to what is needed to promote public safety.

"Information such as place of employment or place of education should not routinely be available. There should be stronger prohibitions and penalties against the misuse of offenders’ information, harassment of the offender and their families, and discriminatory practices against the offender which may cause denial of housing, education or other necessary benefits of services."

The police supported public access to "greatly increase accessibility and assist in promoting community safety." The TTPS said, "The registration process ought to help deter offenders from further criminal conduct."

Vision on Mission, an NGO for ex-offenders, said public access would curb first time offenders and re-offenders.

"While it may increase offender stress, it will increase victim safety."

The Judiciary advocated a police-only access, saying open registers exist in South Korea, the Maldives and parts of the US but there is no evidence public access makes a society any safer.

The Judiciary said there may be some utility to the creation of a registry, noting some sex offenders never lose their disposition to commit sexual offences and so should be monitored, but they were concerned about publicising the list of sex offenders.

"Offences are not equal, nor are offenders. "There must be an evaluation of risk to determine whether there is a high or low risk of recidivism and only in cases of high risk, should an offender be entered on the Register. This should be a judicial decision."

The Judiciary said New York defies federal legislation requiring open public registers, preferring instead to use an evidence-based approach where judges rely on risk assessment tools to place offenders into categories or tiers, where a low tier or low risk offender is often excluded from public disclosure.

"On the issue of recidivism, there is precious little in the form of empirical evidence to substantiate a claim that sex offender registries make society any safer from the scourge of repeat offending.

"A study from Columbia University and the University of Michigan revealed that police-only registries (as obtains in the UK, Canada and Australia) have a positive effect on reducing sex-offender recidivism, whereas making the information publicly available, has the undesirable effect of increasing recidivist behaviour."

The survey suggested public registries increase offender stress and make the prospect of returning to prison less ominous, as it is not much worse than attempting to live in society while on a public registry.

"Essentially, their identity becomes entirely hinged on the public registry. Nonetheless, it was noted that a public registry may deter potential first-time offenders."

Australian studies suggested that while public registries may have a small general deterrent effect on first-time offenders, they do not reduce recidivism, and have little effect on levels of fear in the community.

"In several states of the United States of America where there are open public registries, offenders have reported that they received threats and assaults, have been chased from their homes and communities and report grave difficulty in accessing work, even the most menial of jobs.

"Exclusion and exile after release from prison completely undermines the likelihood of reintegration and rehabilitation. Viewed this way, public registries serve only to vilify offenders who have served their term." Family members may also be harassed.

However, the Judiciary said there is merit in allowing members of the national community to have enough details to identify convicted sex offenders.

"Police officers cannot be everywhere. There is merit in allowing members of the national community to have sufficient information that they can identify persons who have been convicted of sex offences. An issue of safety and risk of harm arises where someone convicted of a sexual offence seeks employment or is employed in a role where that individual has access to at risk persons whom the bill is designed to protect."

Attorney Jonathan Baggan of OABI told the JSC at a hearing on March 19 that the only offender details revealed online should be those “necessary to promote public safety.”

He said details of place of employment or place of education should not be routinely available. He said the Constitution grants a right to private and family life. “The legislation touches and concerns, not just the right to private and family life of the offender, but keep in mind we are a small society, we love bacchanal, we love scandal, we love gossip, so there is potential for an entire family, an entire family's name, to be scandalized for generations.” Baggan recommended a tier system be used, that could see a serial rapist’s details published but not those of say a 19-year-old young man who did not understand sexual consent and fooled around with a younger girl.

“So when you are putting people who are low risk on the same list as the people who are high risk, you are also diluting the effectiveness of the register.”


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