The federal government recently introduced legislation to create a public database of child sex offenders.
The bill increases the sentences for child sex crimes and requires sex offenders to provide information when they travel and also facilitates information sharing between various law enforcement agencies.
As an advocate for survivors of childhood abuse I support legislation increasing the penalties for child sex offences.
As a father I would want to know if there are any high risk sex offenders living in my neighborhood. So the public database is something that I expect will have a great deal of public support.
However, as a lawyer I have to question whether a public database of sex offenders will actually reduce child sex crimes and protect children.
Most American states have databases of registered sex offenders that can be searched online by the public. Some of these registries have been in place for decades. So there is a fair amount of data available to determine whether public registries actually reduce the incidence of sex crimes.
Registration vs. Notification
The research indicates that there is a clear distinction between the effectiveness of registration verses notification.
Registration requires convicted offenders to register with local police so that law enforcement can track offenders whereabouts.
Notification involves notifying the public when an offender moves into a neighbourhood or providing public access to sex offender databases.
The propsed Canadaian legislation contains both registration and notification requirements.
Registration of sex offenders
J. Prescott from the University of Michigan and Jonah Rockoff from Columbia University studied data from fifteen states over a 10 year period in their paper Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?
The authors of the study found that registration helped reduce sex crimes. In small communities forcing sex offenders to register with police reduced sexual offences by up to 13%. The authors found that the more comprehensive the registry the greater the effect in reducing offences.
Since laws require registration only for people who have already been convicted of an offence the reduction in crime was due solely to discouraging recidivism among convicted pedophiles. Registration had no effect in preventing first time offenders or in preventing serial offenders who had never been caught/convicted.
Notification increases crime rate
The authors found that in states that required Police to notify the public when a sex offender moved into a new neighborhood the laws actually had the effect of increasing recidivism rates.
The authors speculate public notification may provide some deterrent to first time offenders.
But notification programs appeared to make it more likely for past offenders to commit offences again. The authors specifically looked at states that had registration programs and added public notification and they noted these states tended to experience higher sex crime rates after adding public notification programs.
What is the reason for the increase in crime rate?
It does seem counterintuitive that notifying the public about sex offenders could result in an increase in crime rates.
The authors of the study speculated that:
“Convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crimes when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime free life relatively less desirable…”
So what should the government do?
Although a public database of sex offenders may appeal to the public the government should focus its efforts on registration laws that enable law enforcement officials to keep track of sex offenders rather than publicly naming and shaming pedophiles.
Even though we may think that a public database is the right thing to do because it gives us the perception we are protecting our children, the facts from those jurisdictions that have past experience with these types of programs tell us that public databases of sex offenders is likely to increase the risk to our children.
So what do you think? Are you in favour of a public database for sex offenders?