Sex Offender Registry discussion

On Sunday, JustSpeak attended the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s launch of their ‘Protect That Child Project’, advocating for the abolishment of name suppression for sex offenders and a public sex offender registry in Aotearoa. In addition to the line-up from the SST, Rethinking Crime and Punishment’s Kim Workman and Dr Gwenda Willis, a clinical psychologist who works with sexual offenders, spoke at the event. We would like to applaud Dr Willis and Kim for presenting balanced and evidence-based presentations, to an audience many of whom were in clear opposition to their views on successful sex offender treatment and rehabilitation.

This week we’re going to be posting a piece by Charis Dixson, a criminology Masters student who is researching the efficacy and effectiveness of sex offender registers. However, here’s our thoughts following Sunday’s event.

Name Suppression

As the law currently stands the vast majority of sexual offenders do not receive permanent name suppression other than under s 201 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011. This section provides that automatic suppression of the offender will apply in cases where the victim may be identified through publishing the name of the offender (for the most part due to a family connection). The section specifically provides that it is there to protect the complainant, and that complainant may apply to the court to have this suppression removed. We believe that it is important that victims are supported should they choose to speak out about sexual violence, and this provision exists.

Reducing likelihood of reoffending

Dr Willis’ research into sex offender treatment and rehabilitation demonstrates that the majority of individuals convicted of a sexual offence are not likely to reoffend. Reconviction data estimates that the overall base rate of sexual reoffending is just 14% over a five year period. Furthermore, regardless of offender type, the longer somebody remains offence free in the community, the less likely they are to reoffend.

This was reflected in a recent study which found that after 17 years of living in the community without reconviction, previously ‘high risk’ offenders are no more likely to be convicted for a subsequent sexual offence than non-sexual offenders are to commit an ‘out of the blue’ sexual offence. Dr Willis also addressed the myth that sex offenders don’t respond to treatment. Reoffending rates for offenders who have gone through treatment have been reported to be just 3.2% after five years. It’s clear that focussing on support and treatment with proven results will be more successful in reducing crime and keeping our communities safe than a public sex offender registry. There is little evidence that shows that a public sex offender register reduces any type of sexual offending. Instead, research has shown that public sex offender registers can actually be more harmful to safety in the community by creating barriers to successful reintegration such as housing and unemployment, and can actually lead to an increase in the likelihood of reoffending.

More effective uses of resources 

Kim Workman spoke of the success that the ‘It’s not okay’ campaign had on increasing the reporting levels of family violence which, in turn, allowed for intervention and promoted safety in our communities. He suggested this type of media campaign could be a more effective, less harmful way of protecting children from sexual violence than a public sex offender registry. While ultimately we believe we have the same goals as the supporters of Sensible Sentencing Trust, such as safer communities and reduced offending rates, we believe there are more evidence-based, effective and less harmful means to get there.

While JustSpeak does not agree with the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s view on the need for a public sex offender register, we commend their efforts to encourage open debate and to hear opposing points of view in a public forum, particularly the voices of victims who are too often neglected in this discussion. We also applaud a victim who had the courage to speak out and tell her story at the forum in the effort to help others do the same. It was heartening to see that many members of the public acknowledged and welcomed the alternative views and solutions put forward and we were even approached by an audience member who said they had changed their mind and now opposed a public register.