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.