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With the reality that sexual predators are dangerous and extremely recidivistic, it is an empirical question whether Australia should implement a public sex offender registration, to increase public safety and deter crime. Nonetheless, does this public notification system accomplish its objective? The current debate provides an in-depth definition of both sex offender registries (SOR) and public sex offender registries (PSOR), when they were introduced and how they work. The discussion then addresses the arguments for the affirmative of PSORs, which comprise an increase in public safety and a heightened response to sex offender arrests. Next, is the rebuttal and the opposing arguments, which comprise vigilantism and recidivism. Utilised throughout the debate to strengthen the affirmative and opposing sides are the principles of punishment; retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation, as well as sociological theories of Emile Durkheim, Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Perspectives. Lastly, the debate concludes whether Australia should or should not adopt a public sex offender registry.
A SOR is a system in several countries which allows law enforcement agencies to record the actions of sex offenders following the conclusion of their sentences. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission maintains an online application process to case manage and distribute data on registrants among police departments (ACIC 2016). PSORs is a step above SORs and comprises Megan’s Law in the United States, which utilises the distribution of identification and personal information of criminal offenders and provides it to the public. Megan’s Law was adopted throughout America in 1996, after Megan Kanka, seven years old, was sexually assaulted and killed in July 1994, by a neighbour with a record of sex offences against children. Since this time, SORs exist in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Israel and the Republic of Ireland. Despite only the United States implementing a public sex offender registry, 2012 saw several advances towards a PSOR in Western Australia. SORs and SORN procedures are applied to aid law enforcement in decreasing sexual offences and improving community protection.
PSOR laws are centred on community protection, surrounding the idea that communities can guard themselves by notification of convicted sex offenders in the region. Advocates of PSOR claim that providing children with the knowledge and skills they require to avoid dangerous situations can be the utmost effective tools in protecting the public. PSORs seem to be helpful at urging those who utilise them to be safety conscious and implement standard prevention measures. Taylor (2017) conducted an internet survey of 162 users of Western Australia’s online registries. Approximately 67% of respondents were supportive of an Australia PSOR, 65% believed that the community had a right to know if sex offenders were residing in their neighbourhood, while 56% believed that the community had a right to know the identity of all registrants. PSOR is likely the result of community members feeling empowered and capable of making informed decisions, based on the information available. ‘Deterrence’ as a principle of punishment is often thought of as an economic model of social control. Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) states “In preventing crime, it is necessary to improve and publish the laws…”. The sociological theory of critical perspectives by Karl Marxist implies that the rules were the codified means by which one class, the rulers, kept another class in check, also believing in promoting conformity and order.
Registered sex offenders are captured and detained more quickly for additional offences than those not registered (Schram & Milloy, 1995). This outcome undoubtedly has positive effects for the protection of the public, as several reports have demonstrated that SORN has a general deterrent impact on non-convicted and first-time sex offenders. This is perhaps due to a rise in community awareness and supervision, heightened policing efforts and the perceived threat of being named and shamed on a public registration. Letourneau et al. (2010) investigated criminality trends in South Carolina, America, finding SORN decreased first time sex offenders by 11 percent from 1995 to 2005. ‘Deterrence’ as a principle of punishment is essential to rational choice approaches to crime control, as general deterrence techniques hold that criminal figures are regulated by the risk of punishment. The sociological theory of contempory perspectives hold that assessing the threat of offenders, prevents and reduced its risk. Actuarial approaches by Simon and Feeley (1992, 1994) assert “A fundamental characteristic of actuarial justice is its reliance on the concept of risk.” Thereby, informing community members of the whereabouts of convicted offenders, lowers opportunities for offending.
“The public’s ‘right to know’ must be balanced with the potential social costs of Megan’s Law to communities, as well as to sex offenders attempting to successfully reintegrate into society (Levenson & Cotter, 2005).” The implementation of SORs cause knee jerk reactions borne out of public anger concerning the pervasiveness of sexual assault, comprising implications to the offender, their families, and consequently the public. Although decreasing reoffending is typically regarded as the objective, a crucial component of SORN is on the protection of the public. While several media opinion surveys have gauged support for a PSOR in Australia, less than one in five respondents believed this registry would prevent child sexual abuse (14%). Approximately 23% reported it would assist police in detecting additional sex offenders, and only 23% believed the system gave them a sense of security (Daniel Morcombe Foundation, 2016). Therefore, it is an empirical question whether Australia should adopt a public sex offender registry nationwide. ‘Rehabilitation’ as a principle of punishment focuses on modification of attitudes and behavioural issues. Punishments must be structured to fit the criminal rather than the crime, with the aim to reintegrate the individual to a productive position in society (Miethe and Lu, 2005). Emile Durkheim’s sociological method proposed communities have patterns and behaviours outside of any one individual, which attempt to comprehend the function of social facts. Restitution is crucial as it repairs the former interactions which were disrupted from their typical form.
PSORs comprise several collateral consequences flowing from SORs that consequence in strict punishment for offenders. Considering the practical challenge of being released from jail and transitioning to normal life again, many offenders regard PSORs as an additional jail sentence, resulting from the barriers accompanying these registries. This negative cycle is categorised by an increase in social segregation. This is the result of an escalation in moral panic, where the community acknowledges an epidemic of sex crimes which heightens their awareness of such predators. Past studies have revealed that a decrease in social capital and violation of social bonds with the community is highly associated with mental health issues and recidivism. This segregation restricts an offender’s ability to build and sustain relations with friends and family, limiting a registrant’s capacity to easily access valuable community resources. Contrary to the intention of PSORs to reduce sexual offences, research has shown that they can increase offenders’ motivation to reoffend due to resulting lifestyle instability, psychological and emotional damage, lack of support and isolation and shame. Taking into account Labelling Theory, the sex offender label given to these individuals can lead to internalisation to accept society’s perception as a sexual predator resulting in additional offending (Whitting, Day & Powell, 2014). Crime was thought to originate either in internal pathological deficiencies, or in external social inequalities. Therefore, ‘rehabilitation’ as a principle of punishment is often thought of as a defect in the individual which can be corrected vs the offending being the defect. The sociological theory of critical perspective by Karl Marxist, claims crimes are committed exclusively by the lower class and minorities, as the lower class is more likely to be pursued, captured and labelled as criminal, and treated more harshly by the criminal justice system (CJS).
Clinical psychologists claim environmental factors are considered relevant to lowering the risk of recidivism, lowering stress levels, gaining employment and overcoming denial (Whitting, Day & Powell, 2014). However, these factors are most likely to be put at risk by PSORs with fear of reprisals against the offender and their family. Critics of PSORs often highlight the potential for widespread public vigilantism, and concerns for the physical safety of registered sexual offenders. In Britain, a popular newspaper, News of the World, began a ‘name and shame’ crusade after the sexual assault and murder of a young girl, publishing the names, addresses and photos of offenders (Terry, 2015). This campaign resulted in a series of vigilante and lynch-mob attacks, resulting in arson attacks, gang bashings and destruction of property. Policymakers and law enforcement should therefore be aware of the potential for a variety of forms of dangerous actions to occur with a PSOR and ask themselves whether Australia should adopt a public sex offender registry. When societies were mostly tribal, the most dominant form of punishment took the form of ‘an eye for an eye’. Thus, the retributivist seeks for the punishment that the criminal deserves, the punishment that the society has a right to inflict. The sociological theory of contempory perspectives by Michel Foucault analyses the relationship between forms of punishment and the society in which they are found. Sociologist Ulrich found that “if a group represents a risk, it becomes defined by this ‘risk’ and is marginalised and threatened with exclusion (Bull 2010: 55).”
Regardless of their intended advantages, PSORs have several harmful outcomes stemming from their implementation. Study frequently labels the main challenges facing offenders as isolation and stigmatisation. These challenges cause sex offenders to lose their social capital and support, therefore destroying family relationships and producing mental health issues. PSORs can also trigger registrants to rebel against the CJS, leading to heightened recidivism. Ultimately, the negative impacts are significant, and arguably outweigh any advantages of introduction, concluding that Australia should not adopt a public sex offender registry, as empirical evidence shows a decrease in community safety and an increase in crime.
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