Post 326.

The government is proposing amendments to the Sexual Offences Act which would put a National Sex Offenders Register in motion. Civil society organisations have been welcomed into the process, and have argued for a rights-based and restorative justice approach to this legislative proposal.

Registries enable convicted offenders to be tracked so societies can take preventative actions to protect vulnerable groups.

It’s clear that traffickers, pimps, consumers and producers of child pornography, and repeat sexual offenders, particularly against children, present a risk that emerges from opportunity, impunity, and the need for greater integration of information, social services, policing and border security.

But, for some other convicted offenders, being put on a register may not be the best approach. Some categories of offenders, such as sex workers, should be understood in terms of their vulnerabilities, not as a risk to society. Sex work doesn’t have to be decriminalised for such protection, though this is definitely needed. Rather, those convicted under this category in the Sexual Offences Act can be exempted.

Putting up convicted offenders’ names in every police station to name and shame may result in increased vulnerability as children and those who report are blamed for the effects to families’ names, and blamed for convicted sex offenders’ difficulty working and living after they have completed their sentences. Indeed, reporting is still low when whole families know about child sex abusers in their midst because of fear of scandal and a belief that such matters should be kept private.

Civil society groups have argued that the register should be private, but fully available to protective services, social services, the judiciary, immigration officials and more. As well, CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, as part of a wider coalition, has suggested that a ‘duty to verify’ by employers, religious authorities, school authorities, sports groups and day care centres, for example, is better than a public list and similarly ensures that children can be protected from offenders. These groups should request confirmation whether or not those with such potential access to children are on the register. This, rather than full public accessibility, should be built into the amendment.

Civil society groups are also arguing for clear protocols for the judiciary – where sentencing takes place and where it is decided which offenders would be registered. For example, a teacher who fails to report out of fear for her life would have a case to be kept off the register but the list is potentially very broad and it’s not clear where the onus is placed. Should an abused mother have to make a case for why she should not be convicted and put on a register or should the courts have clear guidelines that specify that registered offenders should be those that present a clear risk? These matters can be dealt with through a special division of the court, applying and extending model guidelines for dealing with sexual offences, and use of psychological assessments.

The register’s power to prevent sexual offences is limited by low rates of reporting and lower rates of conviction. As civil society has observed, one in five women will experience sexual abuse from someone other than her partner in her lifetime. Of every 75 women who do, only 12 (16%) will report it, 6 (50%) will have those reports become a legal case, and only one conviction (17%) will result. This means that trust in the system of policing and prosecution must be strengthened such that victims and others are prepared to report. It means that the rates of successful convictions must improve or else only a minority of sexual offenders will actually make it on the register. Currently, the majority of sexual offenders will remain unaffected by this valuable amendment.

Thinking about the rates of intimate partner sexual violence, which is reported by between 3% and 16% of women, were the system of justice to work as it should and both reporting and convictions match prevalence, it would mean that tens of thousands are registered – without mandatory rehabilitation upon conviction being part of the process.

Strengthened protocols and protections that encourage reporting, integration of experts in psychological assessments, comprehensive sex education, and widespread gender-based and sexual violence sensitisation across all ages have been recommended by civil society.

A register alone cannot change beliefs normalising child sexual abuse and sexual violence against women. Integrated institutional response, clear protocols, monitoring, and a commitment to gender equality are necessary for it to be effective in ways presented to a public desperate for solutions.