Caution on way ahead for sex offender registration
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Caution on way ahead for sex offender registration

The WA proposal is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Making personal details public is not the way to go, DAVID BILES writes

About three months ago I prepared an opinion piece for this newspaper which appeared under the title ''Sex offender registration system needs to change'' (September 13, p9) which seems to have had little or no impact on the police and politicians who are are responsible for this area of justice administration.

There is now even more cause for concern as at least one state government, that of Western Australia, is currently making a major change to the sex offender register system by making details of the offenders on the register available to the public by way of a website.

This proposal completely turns on its head the central principle underlying the registration system, which is that the information it contains is strictly confidential. It is available only to police who will use the information to keep track of registered offenders and will also give advice to agencies whose employees have close contact with children, such as schools, on the potential risks associated with named employees.

No doubt some WA residents will see this as a carefully considered plan to reduce, if not completely solve, a serious social problem, especially as the WA government claimed that this proposal was based in part on British legislation which was trialled in two police districts. No claim has been made that either of these trials led to lower levels of sex offending, but they did apparently show that the provision of information was manageable from a police point of view.

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The proposal itself, which at one level appears moderate and carefully considered, provides for three levels of disclosure about offenders. It is not necessary to list the rather complicated details of the proposal here. Suffice to say, Derryn Hinch, in his first public comments since his completion of five months of home detention and enforced public silence, praised the WA scheme as an example of Megan's Law which he would like to see in Australia.

Megan's Law is the informal name for laws in the United States which require police to make available to the public information on registered sex offenders. This approach has been evaluated very thoroughly in the US (and evaluation in criminal justice is something that the Americans do very well) and has been found to have no demonstrable effect on the number of sex offences, no reduction in the number of victims in the community and no change in the rate or type of re-offending.

In other words, letting the public have access to information about sex offenders may have some political attraction, as some people just want to know more about the people who commit these crimes, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that this will make any difference at all to the incidence and nature of sex offending.

Even though the WA legislation sets strict penalties for the misuse of information on sex offenders, there is concern that this proposal may well lead to vigilantism where private citizens try to take the law into their own hands, the effect of which is to make the work of the police considerably more difficult. The recent experience of known paedophiles in both NSW and Victoria being publicly abused and hounded out of their houses should raise alarm bells about this possibility elsewhere.

In the course of the debate in WA it was revealed that the total number of cases currently on the national child sex offender register (known as ANCOR) is 12,596, of whom about 2500 live in WA. The source of these figures has not been revealed, and they may well be either fanciful or unlawfully obtained, but they are about twice as high as they were three years ago when I did some work in this area.

It certainly would be fanciful if anyone suggested, on the basis of these figures, that there are more than 12,500 convicted paedophiles in Australia. In my considered opinion, not more than 10per cent of the total would be paedophiles, with the overwhelming majority being relatively normal men who who have been convicted for having consensual sexual intercourse with females under the legal age of consent.

They should be punished for their unacceptable behaviour, but placing them on a sex offender register for life (and perhaps publishing their photographs and their names and addresses) would be a travesty of what we understand to be justice in this country.

The reform of the sex offender register system that is urgently needed in my view is to develop a method for reliably differentiating paedophiles from other sex offenders. This should not be particularly difficult as paedophiles comprise a distinctly separate group who are only interested in particular age groups of very young male and female children.

Paedophiles and persons convicted of violent or predatory sex offences are the ones who definitely should be on the register, even though many paedophiles avoid being registered by moving interstate or overseas if they believe they are likely to be arrested. What is needed at this time is not the WA proposal, but a national review of the system by representatives of all Australian police forces as well as corrections agencies and psychologists and psychiatrists who have expertise in this area. The result should be a considerably more rational, more effective and less expensive system than the one we have now.

Derryn Hinch is an intelligent, highly articulate and deeply committed radio broadcaster, and he is perfectly entitled to express his opinions provided that in doing so he does not break the law. In my opinion, however, on this subject he suggests an overly simplistic solution to a very complex problem. I strongly believe that there is no place for Megan's Law in any Australian criminal justice system

  • David Biles is a consultant criminologist who in 2008 played a role in a sustainability assessment of the ANCOR system conducted by Hugh Watson Consulting.
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