If politicians are looking for a sure fire vote winner then anything that punishes people convicted of sex offences does the trick. So there is likely to be little resistance to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s budget announcement of $7.8 million to establish a National Public Register of Child Sex Offenders.
Dutton is proposing that this register would allow all Australians to see names, aliases and photographs of sex offenders, as well as their date of birth, physical description and the “general location and nature” of their crimes.
This initiative might be popular but international research shows that it is likely to lead to vigilantism, have no impact on rates of offending and in fact could increase the risk of reoffending by those on the register. Most importantly, it offers no real assistance or support to people who are the victims of sex crimes.
While it is still unknown which offenders will be subject to this national regime and whether the territories and states will co-operate with its establishment, we do know that making a sex offenders register public is a giant leap from the current position in Australia. Currently in most jurisdictions, sex offender registers are highly restricted in terms of public access. Even in Western Australia, where there is some public access, the sort of information that is available is restricted in terms of types of offences and their location.
In contrast to Australia, the United States has had public registers in most states for over two decades. The results tell us that there is no benefit to the community in such “naming and shaming”. In fact, communities where registered sex offenders live can suffer as a result of the public having that information.
But, perhaps most importantly, it is the fact that public sex offender registers do not reduce offending and, in fact, might lead to offenders reoffending. In May 2018 the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) published a paper which analysed and drew conclusions from the vast body of US public register impact research. The paper noted that US research shows “that convicted sex offenders are more likely to reoffend when their personal and offending information is made public due to the psychological and financial costs on offenders”.