Having a balanced discussion of child sex offender legislation has always been difficult. People tend to shy away from questioning such legislation for fear of being branded as soft on those who sexually violate children, the most vulnerable members of our society.
The Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Register) Bill, however, deserves more attention than it has so far received. In my opinion, the setting up of a child sex register will result in more sex offending against children, rather than less.
I outline a fuller case against the Bill in my article entitled “The downside to a child sex register” recently published on the New Zealand Herald website. Here are some of my main points.
Rehabilitation of child sex offenders will become that much more difficult. It is hard for former offenders to put the past behind them and start a new life if they are being so closely monitored by the Police. Not only will they have to report their residence, phone numbers, email addresses and car registration. They will also be required, for the rest of their life, to give 48 notice of travel to another town and tell the Police who they will be staying with.
The existence of such an all-encompassing and personally invasive register will increase discrimination against former child sex offenders. The message the community gets is that these are people to keep away from and to be very wary of employing. The result will be that former offenders become more socially isolated – and more likely, rather than less likely, to revert to a deviant way of relating to children. This downside of the register could well outweigh the upside of the Police having more information to detect child sex offences.
Don’t be fooled. This is not “special case” legislation, relevant only to child sex offenders. The Minister in charge of the Bill, Anne Tolley, is already talking of extending the register to former prisoners who have committed other crimes, not just sex offences.
This raises a series of civil liberties concerns, already identified by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson in his NZ Bill of Rights audit of the present Bill. Finlayson has said that the Bill imposes on released sex offenders “disproportionately severe treatment or punishment”, contrary to Section 9 of the Bill of Rights. It does this by imposing on the former prisoners lifetime reporting obligations without any right of appeal as to whether “they no longer pose a risk to the lives or sexual safety of children”.
The Attorney-General also believes the extensive reporting system constrains two other Bill of Rights provisions. “The right to freedom of movement” [Section 18] which is constrained by the advance notification of travel requirement; and “the right to freedom of expression” [Section 14] which is “engaged because reporting obligations are a form of compelled speech.”
As a final point, I believe it would be useful, as we debate the pros and cons of the current Bill, to tap in to overseas experience with sex offender registers. Chris Finlayson notes that there is “a lack of evidence from other jurisdictions” that such registers have “improved public safety”.