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The research behind the benefits or otherwise of implementing a public child sex offender register is mixed – so should Australia go there?

Should Australia introduce a public, nationwide sex offender register? This is a question that has been asked for years and remains a highly fraught issue. In January, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton again raised this as a possibility, saying that “thwarting the exploitation of children” was a priority.

“It would have a strong deterrent effect on offenders and ensure that parents are not in the dark about whether a registered sex offender has access to their children,” Dutton said.

While details of the proposed register are scant – it could include photographs, full name, date of birth, past offences, and general location such as postcode – Dutton will need the approval and cooperation of all states and territories.

Western Australia was the first state to introduce a comprehensive public sex offender register, in late 2012. Called the Community Protection Register, it contains the names and photographs of convicted repeat offenders who live in the vicinity.

But a 2018 Australian Institute of Criminology report on US and UK sex offender registers found they provide mixed results.

“While public sex offender registries may have a small general deterrent effect on first-time offenders, they do not reduce recidivism,” the report states.

“The WA semi-public sex offender registry impact on recidivism has yet to be measured. However, interviews with key stakeholders, including police and practitioners, have raised concerns that public registration is counter-rehabilitative and could increase the risk of reoffending.”

There are high levels of support for public sex offender registries within the broader community. While there is no evidence that they have any impact on the level of fear of becoming a victim, there is some evidence that they make people feel safer.

THE AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF CRIMINOLOGY REPORT

Edith Cowan University conducted the first research on the WA register, finding mixed results. It stated that just 82 of approximately 3,000 convicted sex offenders were on the register at the time, which created a false sense of security for parents.

“The vast majority believed that every type of sex offender should be on a publicly available register. This indicates that access to relevant information enhances the community’s sense of security in this context,” says researcher Caroline Taylor.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) “cautiously” supports the proposal but only for those who remain a risk to children. But LCA president Arthur Moses SC adds that it would perhaps be better to invest resources into preventing family violence.

“Our resources need to be targeted to this area as well, rather than proposed measures that [are] not going to stamp out these hideous crimes which impact upon our most vulnerable and precious members of the community – our children.”

There’s a fine line between preventing sexual assault, appeasing a society angered by such crimes, and people’s civil liberties and protection from possible vigilante attacks. Concerns raised are the costs to taxpayers and the fact the register does not capture offenders who are found not guilty or yet to be detected by police. Child protection organisation Bravehearts states that only 10 per cent of offenders are involved in the justice system.

It has also been argued that the register subverts the long-held legal principle that once a person has been released from prison, they have discharged their payment to society. 

Supporters of a public register – such as broadcaster-turned-senator Derryn Hinch, parents, and victim rights organisations – say, however, that they have a right to know if an offender lives or works amongst them, and that a register increases their sense of safety. 

On the first day the WA register opened, the website crashed multiple times due to demand. 

Parents are not fooled, however – a 2017 survey revealed that 80 per cent acknowledged that a register would not prevent future sexual assault.

The Australian Institute of Criminology report also examined how registers impact public safety and, importantly, perceptions of public safety. It found that, like the impact on re-offending, results are mixed.

“There are high levels of support for public sex offender registries within the broader community. While there is no evidence that they have any impact on the level of fear of becoming a victim, there is some evidence that they make people feel safer,” states the report. This shows it is the feeling of empowerment that the register gives people which creates this sense of safety.

The Daniel Morcombe Foundation, established in memory of Queensland child Daniel Morcombe who was kidnapped and murdered by sex offender Brett Cowan in 2003, supports the proposal. Morcombe’s mother, Denise, says it would be especially useful for single mothers when they were dating.

“If they meet someone, they’ll be able to put that person’s name into the website and see if this person is a serious offender or not,” Morcombe told the ABC in January.

A ‘middle ground’ between the two sides was established in England and Wales in 2010. Known as ‘Sarah’s law’, this system allows parents, guardians and carers of children to request information from the police about whether someone who has access to children has a record of child sexual offences. This information is disclosed only to those who are immediately responsible for that child.

Child safety advocate Hetty Johnston, from Bravehearts, says it is a “sensible” approach but believes the debate should move away from registers to the failure of the justice system in imposing stronger sentences.

Johnston argues if a convicted sex offender is deemed such a threat that the community should be aware if he or she is nearby, then it would be much safer to place them in continued detention: “Dangerous sex offenders should not be released back into the community until such time as they are assessed as low risk and that that risk can be managed in the community.”