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Guy says sex offenders register will not lead to vigilantes

Publicly-available sex offender registers have a long and chequered history internationally, leading to vigilante violence and harassment.

But the Victorian Liberals insist the register they proposed on Monday strikes the right balance between informing families about the “worst of the worst” sex offenders and preventing vigilante action.

Under the Coalition policy, Victorians wanting to access the register will have to apply to a commissioner and sign a declaration promising not to misuse the information. It will not be publicly searchable.

Applicants will be able to find out whether their local area is home to sex offenders or request information about specific individuals.

The register will include photographs, identifying descriptions and the 'current area' where the offender lives, but not their actual address.

In the US, all 50 states have publicly-accessible registers of sex offenders, but some have led to attacks on offenders, and the broad application of the policy has seen children as young as nine placed on registers.

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The UK saw violent scenes throughout the country in 2001 after Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World newspaper began publishing details of convicted child sex offenders.

Amid what the home office called a "climate of fear and panic" local people formed vigilante mobs intent on driving men taken to be those pictured in the paper out of their neighbourhoods.

In the country’s south, a 300-strong mob attacked the home of a man named by the newspaper, and an innocent man was beaten up by a mob in Manchester after being mistaken for one of the pictured paedophiles.

Criminologist Karen Gelb says the Victorian opposition is chasing votes by playing up “stranger danger” with its new policy of supplying photographs of serious sex offenders to Victorians who successfully apply for that information.

Dr Gelb, formerly with the Sentencing Advisory Council, says the policy ignores the real threat of child sex abuse which is overwhelmingly committed by family or people known or trusted.

She described the Coalition’s policy as “politically expedient” but would not succeed in preventing crime.

“It’s a politically easy approach to adopt because you’re playing on public fears,” she said.

“It’s a vote winner but it’s a cynical exercise because it goes against the evidence.”

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said there would be serious penalties, including up to 10 years' jail, for people who misused information gained through the register. He said it would differ from US models where people can type in an address and gain information about individuals.

“This is not for people to put on vigilante sites. This is for personal information,” he said. “It might be for a school principal for instance. Yes, that person might be sharing those details with teachers. But it’s not about publicly creating websites, creating Facebook pages. We’re not going to have any vigilante-style operation.”

Opposition police spokesman Edward O'Donohue said he had spoken to legal experts and former and serving police in creating the policy.

Swinburne University’s Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science director James Ogloff told the ABC that registers introduced overseas had not made those communities safer.

Both Professor Ogloff and Dr Gelb said evidence showed that making information about sex offenders public could make it more likely they will reoffend.