It’s not like this in other countries

As a child, I was moved from a sleepy little village in Cambridge, England to the sprawling suburban metropolis of San Diego, California. The adjustment to American culture as an eight year old child had a profound effect on me that would forever shape my view of the criminal justice system.

Childhood in Cambridge was similar to how I imagine childhood would have been in any part of New Zealand. I rode my bike home from primary school through a small village every day, entirely carefree. As I got older friends would walk with me home, sometimes stopping at the village shops on the way.

My new American home was the complete opposite: several miles from my school via multiple freeways. Geography aside, I was told by my family it simply wasn’t safe for a child to ride their bike home alone in California. It also wasn’t safe for children to play outside unsupervised, or to ever be in a public place without an adult. What was this constant looming threat to my safety as a child? The awareness of my mother – and all the surrounding families in the neighbourhood – that there were child sex offenders living in our midst.

Thanks to the presence of an online sex offender registry all the families in the community believed they were living under constant threat and exercised extreme control over their children as a result. As time passed, more child sex offenders were placed on the registry and the concern of neighbourhood parents grew. As a child, I did not feel any more unsafe riding my bike down the street in America than I did back in England (where I’m sure sex offenders existed also); however, being aware of this presence had made my community seem like a scary place. I will never forget my adult neighbour insisting to walk me home at the age of 12, as if danger lurked somewhere in the 10 feet between our homes.

I would eventually leave California at the age of 14 having encountered no sexual predators in my neighbourhood. Was this due to the existence of a registry and the subsequent control my parents placed over my freedom? Or was the element of threat always really low, and thanks to the registry we simply perceived the threat as higher? Knowing the whereabouts of these offenders had in fact proven to create danger multiple times; people vandalised their homes and physically threatened them. It was strange to me to live amongst a culture that existed under constant threat, and as a child it made me feel incredibly unsafe. Children should be able to enjoy the freedom of their youth without the belief that a paedophilic boogie man is lurking outside their front door.

Now as a 23-year-old adult with an honours degree in criminology, I have chosen to write my Master’s thesis on the attitudes that underlie the creation of these policies. I have found sufficient evidence to argue that these policies are created out of fear for a crime we cannot comprehend rather than based on evidence and recidivism rates. As I will also go on to explain, I have a deep fear that these policies actually create conditions that lead to re-offending, which creates potential for further sexual victimisation of children. We need to investigate if these policies are successful, and as qualified and informed adults working in the criminal justice system we must create policies that are based on fact and evidence, not based on perceived threat for a crime we cannot comprehend. We need to pay great attention and detail to the conviction and rehabilitation of child sex offenders because it is our duty as human beings to protect those who cannot protect themselves, specifically our children.

Recently, here in New Zealand, the Sensible Sentencing Trust launched a campaign for an online, public sex offender registry. However, before we create a sex offender registry in New Zealand, we need to stop and carefully consider the following factors: why are these policies created, what is their intended aim and are they successful in achieving these aims?

Child sex offender registries are created as a response to sexual crimes against children, therefore their existence is assumed by the public to deter these crimes from occurring again. The belief underlying the creation of a registry is that sex offenders are likely to re-offend and therefore we must monitor their location post-release to help protect our communities.
he Sensible Sentencing Trust is also of the belief that creating an online registry would better hold offenders responsible for their crimes via a ‘name-and-shame’ approach. Those placed on the registry will be forever labelled and forced to handle to consequences related to employment, housing and social interaction. This aligns with the rationale that offenders forfeit their human rights via the crimes they commit; therefore, monitoring the movement of these offenders post-release is a deserved consequence of sentencing.

This approach regards child sex offenders as a homogenous group with each member posing equal risk of re-offence. This belief is not supported with empirical evidence. The estimated base rate for sexual re-offending is 14% (Harris & Hanson, 2004); however, re-offending various greatly depending on the demographic of the offender and type of crime. Sample & Bray (2006) reviewed arrest data over a seven-year period in the USA and found that adult rapists were significantly more likely to re-offend over child sex offenders, suggesting instead that offenders be monitored based on individual level of risk.

The New Zealand experience has been similar. The Department of Corrections conducted a study of 1,100 sex offenders released between 2001 and 2003, and discovered that the re-imprisonment rate of adult sex offenders (35%) was twice that of child sex offenders (17%) (Corrections, 2001). This would suggest there is far more basis for an adult sex offender-registry than a child sex offender registry. The same study found that re-offence patterns in child sex offenders were impossible to predict but certainly do not occur frequently enough to warrant constant monitoring.

It is also important to consider the element of ‘name suppression’ in child sex offender cases; this allows for the offender to prevent their name from being released to the public and the media. Identifying the offender can potentially expose others involved, meaning name suppression is commonly granted to the offender as an extension of protection for the victims and their families. In cases of sexual abuse between family members, name suppression can be particularly important. The Sensible Sentencing Trust support the public shaming of these offenders via the creation of a registry which would immediately lift name suppression for all offenders. The SST website states that they are against name suppression because it is only sought for selfish reasons, such as that they are an ‘up and coming sports person’ and it ‘may disadvantage their family’.

This approach reinforces the exact function for which name suppression exists. Yes it may disadvantage uninvolved innocent family members and we should respect their right to privacy. In 2011, the Department of Corrections stated that of all crime types, sex offences were least likely to result in apprehension and conviction, largely due to the reluctance of victims to report (Corrections, 2001). We must consider then that lifting name suppression could deter those who already are displaying great courage by coming forward.

As a child, these registries made me feel afraid and confused. It puzzled me that these people posed so much risk that they needed to be tracked and monitored via a registry yet they had been approved for release. These policies have been referred to by other researchers as emotionally fuelled responses that provide an artificial sense of security for the public and have been established to be harmful to the rehabilitation and reintegration of child sex offenders into society (Sample & Bray et al, 2006).

A major negative side effect to creating a registry lies in the public response to living amongst sex offenders. The clearest examples come from the USA and Australia; Levenson & Cotter (2005,a; 2005,b) conducted studies on offenders placed on the Florida registry and found that the majority of sex offenders had not been allowed to return home and therefore did not have access to supportive family members. One third of the participants had experienced negative consequences such as loss of home, threat or harassment and property damage. Half of released offenders had been forced to relocate several times, which increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. These conditions can create strain that harms reintegration into society after release and increase likelihood of re-offending. One participant in the study stated: “What helps me is having support people around… isolating me is not helpful”. Shackley et al. (2013) report that in Victoria, Australia, the sex offender registry had led to physical violence and threats to both offenders and their families. This research also documented the difficulties obtaining employment and housing, leading offenders to be further ostracised to society.

Simply stated, registries often lead to circumstances where offenders are punished and stigmatised by their community leading them to frequently encounter problems in employment, housing and physical safety. Such stressful and difficult conditions could lead to re-offending. There is no data to directly support that these registries achieve their intended goal of keeping the community safe and reducing risk of re-offending.

While we know registries are a flawed approach to dealing with sexual offenders, we do know what works. The most effective method of reducing re-offense among child sexual offenders so far has been behavioural cognitive therapy (CBT); an approach that examines patterns of thought in an effort to change behaviour. As previously stated, the fault of registries – and notification laws in general – is the assumption that sex offenders are a homogenous group who pose equal threat of re-offence. CBT programs have proven more successful because they target the individual thoughts and needs of each offender. The Good Lives Model of Offender Rehabilitation (GLM) is a strength-based form of CBT that was created here in New Zealand by Tony Ward and colleagues (Ward & Brown, 2004). This program allows offenders to create a “good lives plan”, which guides offenders into a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle without harming others by teaching them new ways of attaining primary human needs (e.g. to better attain the primary human good of intimacy without seeking the attention of children). The GLM – among other CBT programs – has been found to reduce recidivism. Reoffending rates for sexual offenders who have completed treatment are about 10.9-11.1% in the five year period after a treatment, compared to 17.5-19.2% for untreated offenders (Hanson, Bourgon, Helmus & Hodgson, 2009; Losel & Schumucker, 2005). This drop in recidivism rates represents the impact CBT programs can have, compared to the negative impacts often caused by notification laws and registries.

New Zealand is faced with a decision. It can follow the route paved by countries such as the United States, where I grew up, and that proposed by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, or it can pursue the path paved by evidence. Consider the children for which these policies were created to protect; are we doing them justice by creating offenders who are robbed of the opportunity to successfully and healthily reintegrate into society? My research focuses primarily on the rehabilitation – not punishment – of child sex offenders for one significant reason; I believe rehabilitation can genuinely reduce the risk of re-offending and therefore reduce the amount of future victims.

Sex offender registries are created based on perceived fear of a group of offenders deemed inhumane and immoral for their crimes, not based on recidivism and rearrest data. When we examine the research, there is no evidence to support that registries achieve their intended goal of protecting the public and reducing recidivism. Instead, this goal is better achieved through cognitive behavioural therapy and rehabilitation. Registries simply increase moral panic whilst creating an environment conducive to re-offending. The matter of rehabilitating sex offenders takes great attention and care, not the punitive response being proposed by the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

I remember, as a child, knowing the whereabouts of these offenders and fearing to walk beyond my own front garden alone. I suggest we question the reliability of these policies before we instil the same fear in Kiwi children.

10 Comments

  1. Joy

    Some offenders have been abused as children and have never thought of molesting children. One downloaded at the age of twelve and viewed over a twenty year period of time, NEVER sharing. Also when something is downloaded, you might know it is porn but you do not know the content or what it depicts. These people need therapy to deal with what happened to them, not prison. We need to become a caring nation and reserve judgement for a higher power. Most are in prison because of the almighty dollar. Prison should be reserved for the ones who truly deserve it. Level ones should not be on a registry.

    • Tim

      Some level three shouldn’t be either. I took a plea from the advice of my Attorney. Then after I found out what that meant for me. I have been on this for 11 years. I have never reoffended.and I never will

  2. I love this master thesis in fact this is food for thought. I am going to share some of this with my probation officer and get his views. I think this thesis has got something to it but the fight’s not over about the registry. Lawmakers will have their comebacks. When you’re up against money and funding they are going to do whatever they can to convict the sex offender and increase the registry. Call it “Greed justice”. or as the Bible uses the word “perverted judgment” and what could be a more perverted view than the registry?
    I like the concept that these registries are based upon the perceived threat of those on the registry and that they are based on sexual crimes against children and not make believe children or the thought of those caught up in the registry. I also like the fact that the registry is assumed by the public or law enforcement to reduce crime when in fact they do the opposite and inflict public panic and fear on society and do no good to help rehabilitate the sex offender or reintegrate him or her back into society.
    A bit of common sense should be used as who would want those that are caught up in the registry to be monitored 24/7 plus be branded for the rest of their lives with the “label” when at the same time God doesn’t even monitor like that but gives us freedom and free choice. Sure the Christian has his or her own values to do right or wrong, but he or she is still Gods and God does give a chance of redemption. So while man puts people in bondage with the registry are they a bit more better than God? Man doesn’t with the registry. Putting one under a yoke is one thing but putting them under a bondage/burden is another thing. Human behavior is human behavior and the registry doesn’t hold any values that are constructive in a rehabilitate manner. The are more like a collateral list of society’s lowest and are discriminatory at best.

  3. Shawn

    You have a computer. If you have the correct information you need to post it everywhere you can on the net. Send emails to news organizations. They do not have any more rite to privacy then a sex offender does. Its public information.

  4. guilty by association

    What if? What if you met a wonderful man and got to know him really well I mean talked on the phone for hours and at the same company you both worked you grill all mutual coworkers about him because you have kids and you got to make sure this guy is no weirdo. So you go on a few dates in public still talking everyday for hours. This guy is amazing. He’s told you he’s done time in military jail not sure what for yet. Then your boss who is sexually harassing you gets jealous because you don’t like him decides to show you. Your new friend is a sex offender of course you call him a liar but he tells you to look it up yourself! You go crazy livid! Wtf this is your worst nightmare come true! This is why you were so scared to leave your piece of sh@# cheating abusive husband because of guys like that out there. You confront your new friend and ask him to be honest telling him under no circumstances will you ever date him again. Your a mother for Godsakes! He comes clean immediately offering the excuse you’ve only been seeing each other for a few weeks. He was going to tell you soon just hadn’t been a moment to bring it up. He tells you the whole story of what happened. Was married had a son and stepdaughter. She was 12 had a sleepover two friends came over. Got accused of abusing them. He was in bed all night with wife. Wife testified to this. No proof no physical evidence he asked medical records to be released judge refused! In a case of sexual sodomy no medical reports released? No proof? Just his word against theirs? Daughter was extremely coached by therapist even while testifying! It’s on record he pulls up all court documents for you its all there word for word. You even speak to his ex wife. Before he knew it he was sentenced. You are still scared you have kids remember why take a chance. But part of you believes him after all your investigating you see the wrong in what happened to him. 9 years in prison (military) for something you didn’t do! A year into your sentence your lil daughter you’ve raised is runover while skating any chance of her telling the truth in time gone! How horrible is that? Now you’ve served your time but you must register for life. You can’t find a job so easy,eventually any potential woman will be scared off. I took that chance ppl and I don’t regret it. He’s a good man and I believe him completely. My kids are aware of his record and love him and sometimes stick up for him when a friend happens to find out. I trust him but am not blind I keep a watchful eye always but only because my mom raised me with that kind of mentality even with their own father I was watchful that’s just how I am. I have that no one should touch you talk with them not even your mother I tell them. They are all teens but I’ve done this since their small. This is a serious committed relationship of years and yes its hard living with him due to his registering and people thinking they can tell us how to live.

    • Elsie P

      OMG my story is so similar to yours! My husband was convicted for helping a young girl he found in an alley that was sexually assaulted and even with the little girls confession that he didnt do it they still convicted him! he served 6 years and was released on probation. We met on internet! I found out of all of his past After i moved in w him and my two kids! once he confessed and came clean to what had happened to him he promised he would be the best man and Dad for my kids that i would ever imagine.10 years later OMG i am his Queen and my kids ADORE him! Lives and breaths for us! I wouldnt change him for the world! I now have a few neighbors talking shit and making up stories and even say they dont want their kids playing w our little daughter. just stupid how people want to judge a little girl! I feel sad sometimes because people judge me and point fingers at me but then i think about the life i have with him and thats when i say my neighbors can KMA!! Good luck w your husband and live life to the foolest!

    • Anonymous

      Could be my story word for word. I’m so sorry, but you kind of give me hope. CPS has now been involved in our case (drunken, cheating abusive ex) and we have to maintain 2 separate homes and he is no longer allowed around the 2 great kids he’s helped raise and support. They don’t understand. I don’t understand. His own PO called child services…. it’s just scary how quickly things can go from “normal” to “catastrophic” with this God forsaken registry and these “sky is falling” people.

    • Anonymous

      I can relate with you 100% not all offenders are bad guys. I did all my research and everything too when my man came into my life. He told me a week after we met, I had the same thoughts as you did. I am so glad I gave him a chance.

  5. Meilee

    Why is it that no one is talking about the sex offence actions of the creators of the unfair registry laws of life time registration . ex: Adam Walsh dating underage reve,
    Mark Foley soliciting underage pages
    Mark Lunsfords son dating an underage girl ?

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