The purpose of the child sex offender registry is to identify, monitor and manage the risk posed by convicted child sex offenders who have come to the end of their sentence. The goal is to be able to stop the sex offenders in their tracks if they act suspiciously or as a threat to public safety. The offenders will be monitored for periods of time ranging from 8 years to a lifetime, dependent on the scale of their offending.
It seems like a suitable political response to quell public fears of sex offenders running rampant on the streets. Not a hard idea for politicians to sell to the public. What comes with this is a greater perceived sense of security. People can sleep easy knowing that child sex offenders are accounted for. But does it work?
Reports on the effectiveness of similar oversees models hardly act as compelling reading in favour of the register. Studies from the United States have indicated that sex offender registers have little to no impact on reoffending rates. A recent Australian study has found that on balance, the evidence available does not support the idea that sex offender registries are an effective means of reducing recidivism. Bang for the taxpayer’s buck? Apparently not.
We cannot ignore the fact that 65% of perpetrators committing a sexual act against children in New Zealand have a family relationship with the child victim. What is the value of accounting for child sex offenders for up to a lifetime when we already know where a large proportion of them are? They are in our homes.
A 2011 Department of Corrections study has shown that 30% of child sex offenders were convicted of a new offence within 5 years of being released from prison. This is well below the 52% average re-imprisonment rate for all released prisoners within 5 years. This is even lower than that of the reconviction rate of sexual offences against adults which sits at 35%. So we do have to ask, why is the registry initiative only extending to sexual offences against children?
So why sex offenders? We would all agree that child sex offending is the worst of the worst, but if we are looking to increase public safety, why not have a register for recidivist armed burglars? Or a register for convicted murders? Where do we draw the line? Should we have all convicted criminals on a register?
Alternatively, we have options such as redirecting funding to programs that actually reduce reoffending. One such programme with known benefits is the Kia Marama treatment programme for child sex offenders. An evaluation has found an 8% recidivism rate for child sex offenders who successfully completed the programme. That’s an incredible result for any rehabilitation programme. In-prison programmes like this have yielded very real, meaningful results and are less invasive than a child sex offender registry. In this case we may be better served investing in services that have proven track records of success.
This project will carry a price in the millions of dollars, but there is no international evidence that it will reduce offending at all. Instead simply plays upon hysteria without creating any less victims. The implementation of a registry may be an easy sell with politicians and the general public, but not so much with the evidence.