In Summary

  • This is an opinion piece by Mirko Bagaric, Professor of Law, Swinburne University of Technology that was originally published in The Australian

Every parent is entitled to know if the person next door is a convicted sex offender. The only problem with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s proposal for a public register of convicted child sex offenders is that it is decades too late.

Preventing parents from making informed decisions has precluded their ability to put in place measures to deal with risks to their children. This has facilitated paedophiles sexually abusing countless numbers of children. It is time to end this life-destroying carnage.

Victims often experience a lifetime of suffering to the point where it has an impact on every aspect of their being. They are likelier to experience mental illness, take their own lives and commit crime. Research supports this, and it was underlined by many painful witness accounts at the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

An argument raised by oppon­ents to Dutton’s proposed law is child sex offenders have a low rate of recidivism, and so rendering a child sex offender register pointless. This argument is a crime against the science of statistics and risk assessment. The most under-reported serious crime is child sexual abuse. There are obvious reasons for this: the crime is always committed in private (with no witnesses); the victim is powerless, often embarrassed and sometimes uninformed. So it is difficult to obtain reliable data about the recidivism rate of sex offenders.

The most rigorous studies indicate that the reoffending rate of child sex offenders is from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, with the highest reoffending rate being for extra-familial boy victim child molesters. Admittedly, this is less than the recidivism rate of some property offenders, which can top 50 per cent. But in any risk assessment scenario, what is equally important is if the risk eventuates.

If a convicted thief steals another car, the consequence is minor; if a convicted sex offender rapes another child, the impact can even be life-ending.

The fact a sex offen­der is living in proximity does not mean a child in the area has a 10 per cent to 20 per cent chance of being assaulted. If a public register were in place, many sex offenders would elect to target victims in other locations. But this of itself would be a victory for law enforcement. People are more wary of strangers than individuals whom they even vaguely recognise from incidental contact in the neighbourhood.

Moreover, there is evidence that, on balance, public sex registers reduce the overall incidence of child sexual abuse, although this is sometimes by deterring potential sexual offenders as opposed to convicted ones. It is also farcical for opponents of Dutton’s proposal to suggest that disclosing the identity of sex offenders will subject them to vigilante attacks.

The identity of convicted sex offenders has been disclosed for several decades in many parts of the US and the incidence of physical attacks against them is negligible. This is supported by the experience in Australia. When sex offenders are convicted in regional and rural Australia, much of the community is informed of this and there is no pattern of targeting. Also, if sex offenders feel threatened, there is a ready solution in most cases: contact the police.

Parents who become aware of a sex offender in their neighbourhood don’t chase them out of town with baseballs bats. They typically limit their contact with them. Yes, knowledge that a person is a convicted sex offender can result in the offender being ostracised — an acceptable response in the manner Hollywood heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein have been spurned. And neither has been convicted of anything.

Governments need to respect the autonomy of all people in the community. As individuals, we have the right to make informed decisions regarding matters that affect our wellbeing. To do this, we need to be able to access information about what is important to us. Not informing parents of the identity of convicted child sex offen­ders undermines their sovereignty. Parents should have the cap­acity to inform their children to be cautious of strangers and to show them photos of convicted sex offenders of whom they must be wary.

Government policy often involves balancing competing interests. There is the right of parents to minimise a threat to children, while convicted sex offenders may claim a right to anonymity. Today’s decision-making calculus, favouring the interests of child sex offenders, is a perversion of morality.

Dutton’s proposed sex offender naming law will tilt this balance towards children. If the states oppose the proposal, the federal government should immediately pass the law using the external affairs power in the Constitution, referencing it to article 19 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which requires countries to adopt legislative measures to protect children from sexual abuse.

Mirko Bagaric is Director of the Evidence-Based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project at Swinburne University of Technology. This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian.