Keith Locke: The downside to a child sex offender register

Opinion piece published by the New Zealand Herald, 26 August 2015.

It’s difficult to have an adequate discussion of sex offender legislation because anyone taking a critical stance risks being labeled as soft on sex crimes.

The Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Register) Bill is a case in point. There has been little public debate even though Attorney-General Chris Finlayson says it offends our Bill of Rights.

Let’s look at the upsides and downsides of this register, from both a legal and practical standpoint.

Most people would agree with the Attorney-General that the Bill addresses an important problem. As Chris Finlayson says, “Child victims of sexual abuse are amongst the most vulnerable and the resultant harm is often very serious and long lasting.”

The Attorney-General rightly sees the legitimacy of the Police having more information about sex offenders via a register but notes that “there is a lack of evidence” from other jurisdictions that such registers have “improved public safety.”

According to the Attorney-General, the Bill imposes on released sex offenders “disproportionately severe treatment or punishment”, contrary to Section 9 of the Bill of Rights. It does this when it imposes on the former prisoners lifetime reporting obligations without any right of appeal as to whether “they no longer pose a risk to the lives or sexual safety of children”.

In the Bill former offenders must report any association with children, where they live and work, their car registration, phone numbers and their email addresses. They also have to give 48 hours notice of their travel to another town and where they will be staying.

Chris Finlayson judges that this reporting system also constrains two other Bill of Rights provisions. He says that “the right to freedom of movement in s 18 [section 18] is subjected to an advance notification requirement and the right to freedom of expression is s 14 [section 14] is engaged because reporting obligations are a form of compelled speech.”

Adding to civil liberties concerns is the comment this week by Social Development Minister Anne Tolley that the register may later be expanded to include other serious offenders, not just sex offenders.

Soon we may have a swathe of former criminals who have completed their sentence but are prevented from putting it all behind them and starting a new life. It doesn’t help in rehabilitation if, whatever they do to improve themselves, former prisoners are subject to close Police monitoring for the rest of their lives.

The child sex offender register will impede the integration of former prisoners back into society. It sends a signal to families and communities that these are dangerous people to be kept at arms length, and employers will be wary of taking them on.

A common feature of child sex offenders is a lack of empathy for the plight of their victims. It is harder to teach offenders empathy if we consign them to a lifetime of social rejection. Treating them as outcasts doesn’t help to reduce the chances that they will reoffend. In fact, it increases them. A socially isolated former prisoner is more likely to revert to a deviant way of relating to children.

With a humane approach to former child sex offenders we can reduce their reoffending below its currently relatively low level. Research conducted for the Corrections Department in 2011 showed that less than 4 per cent of released child sex offenders were re-imprisoned for another child sex offences over the subsequent five years.

It doesn’t help to exaggerate the danger and make people more frightened than they need to be when a former child sex offender settles in their neighbourhood. We have seen cases whereby fear in communities has resulted in vigilante action to drive the person out. This only slows the rehabilitation of the offender and doesn’t help those in the next community they settle in.

I am concerned that the child sex offender register will not, in practice, remain confidential to the Police. Some information will probably leak, only to be used by community vigilantes, to the detriment of everyone concerned.

Keith Locke is a former Green MP.