In 2004, a Canadian government study confirmed what the vast majority of previous research had shown - that, contrary to public opinion and politicians' rhetoric, the chance of sex offenders reoffending is low.
Yet in this (and every other Australian) state we have established a Community Protection Register on to which go hundreds of individuals convicted of anything from flashing in a public place to multiple rape.
Being placed on the register is effectively, as experienced Hobart defence lawyer Stephen Chopping says, a way of continuing punishment after an individual has served their sentence and paid their debt to society.
Placement on a register in Australia by a court is a punishment in itself: you are monitored by police for periods up to 15 years, or even life, and every time you apply for a driver's licence or any other form of government permit, the fact you're on the register will be noted; you have to report to the police annually; if you go overseas or interstate, you're obliged to tell the police; and if you buy a car, you must let the police know about it and give them the registration details.
In short, if you are on the sex offender register anywhere in this country, a stigma attaches to you.
There are many examples of cases where placing an individual on the register is simply unfair.
For example, this newspaper recently reported on a case where a young fellow was placed on the register for a staggeringly harsh period of 10 years for the relatively minor offence of sitting in his car, touching himself and drawing two schoolgirls' attention to his activities. Another case involving consensual sex between a 15-year-old girl and her boyfriend of 19 has led to the boyfriend being placed on the register for five years. Yet in some cases where sexual assault takes place in a familial setting, offenders are not placed on the register.
Let's return to the threshold question: do we need a register?
Given that the need appears to be predicated on an assumption it's a deterrent to recidivist offending, the answer is surely no - or at least not in the form that it exists at present.
The Canadian government study, published in 2004, concluded: “Most sexual offenders do not reoffend sexually, that first-time offenders are significantly less likely to sexually reoffend than those with previous sexual convictions, and that offenders over the age of 50 are less likely to reoffend than younger offenders. In addition, it was found that the longer offenders remain offence-free in the community, the less likely they are to reoffend sexually.”
Those findings are not particularly controversial. As Scottish sex offender expert George Irving noted last month: “Over 80 per cent of sex offences are committed by people within the family. We know recidivism rates among sex offenders are the lowest of all offenders and those who go missing are usually found quickly.”
However, politicians, victims' groups and the media continually exaggerate the risk of sex offenders reoffending and it's in that climate of unwarranted fear that Australian governments decided to establish sex offender registers in 2004.
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