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Effect of Sex Offender Registry on Community Safety and Criminal Deterrence

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2709 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This essay will debate whether a public sex offender registry list would increase community safety and deter crime in Australia. Firstly, an overview of what a sex offender registry list is, how it works, why they are used and Australia’s current registry will be discussed. The essay will then provide an affirmative argument in favour of Australia adopting a public sex offender registry list. This argument will explain how public sex offender registry lists act as a deterrent for sex offenders and how they can also incapacitate offenders by removing the opportunity to commit sexual offences against suitable victims. A rebuttal to these two arguments will be made, followed by a negative argument that opposes Australia adopting a public sex offender registry list. This argument will explain how a public sex offender registry list doesn’t really deter sexual crime and how being labeled a sex offender and placed on the registry has detrimental consequences. Lastly, the essay will provide a conclusion that summarizes the main arguments of the opposing view.

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A sex offender registry list is where information and personal details are stored of someone who has been convicted of a reigistrable sex offence (Tewksbury, 2002; Tewksbury & Lees, 2007; Welchans, 2005). The United Kingdom Sex Offenders Act 1995 was the basis for sex offender registration legislation in Australia. The first state in Australia to implement legislation was New South Wales, who implemented the Child Protection Act 2000. This piece of legislation mandated that child sex offenders tell police about their whereabouts and personal information. This Act was a model for future legislation within Australia, with all states and territories between 2004 and 2007 introducing their own registration legislation. The legislation between states and territories are different, however sex offenders are required to report similar types of information to police. This includes employment, contact details, addresses etc (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2013). With the exception of a restricted public sex offender registry list introduced in Western Australia in 2012, this information is not available to the public (Napier, Dowling, Morgan & Talbet, 2018). The purpose of a sex offender registry is to increase public safety, enhance law enforcement investigations and deter offenders from reoffending (Vess, Langskaill, Day, Powell & Graffam, 2011).

Having a public sex offender registry list will deter crime. This is because the punishment of being on a public sex offender registry list is greater than the reward of committing the crime. The purpose of a punishment is to create a situation where the consequences of committing a crime far outweigh any possible benefits of doing the crime. When the consequences outweigh the gain of a crime there will be a specific deterrence (offender deterred from committing a crime/reoffending) and general deterrence (others deterred from committing a crime) (Prescott & Rockoff, 2008). Sex offenders on a register will be closely monitored by police and law enforcement, become stigmatized in society, be publicly shamed, have friends and family impacted, and have rules and regulations regarding where you work, live etc (Mingus & Burchfield, 2012; Pawson, 2002; Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009). Letourneau, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha and Armstrong (2010) examined whether a general deterrent effect on adult sex crimes were associated with South Carolina’s sex offender registration and notification (SORN). The study used adult sex arrest data in South Carolina from 1990 to 2005. Results showed the post SORN period (1995-2005) had a 11% reduction in first time sex crime rates compared to the pre SORN period (1990-1994).

Having a public sex offender registry will incapacitate offenders and prevent them from committing sex crimes. Unlike deterrence which seeks to alter the cost-benefit analysis of offending, incapacitation is a form of punishment that aims to provide a barrier to offending. Through restricting an offenders movements (i.e. physical incapacitation or restrictive measures) the offender is unable to commit crimes that they would normally (Spohn, 2013; Shields, 2012). According to routine activity theory when three elements converge in time and space a crime can occur. The three elements are a potential offender, capable guardian and suitable target (Cohen & Felson, 1979). If one element is missing then the crime will not occur (Felson & Cohen, 1980). As a result of being on a public sex offender registry list, sex offenders are given strict rules and regulations and are monitored by police to ensure they abide by them. These include not being able to work with children, live near schools etc (Napier et al., 2018). Additionally the community use prevention and precautionary measures upon discovery of a sex offender on a public registry. This includes sharing information they have on nearby sex offenders with others, increased monitoring and education of children, and changes to daily routines (i.e. not going out alone at night, avoiding certain areas etc) (Anderson & Sample, 2008; Lieb & Nunlist, 2008). Consequently sex offenders will not have access to suitable targets (i.e. children), thus reducing the opportunity to do these crimes. A study completed in 2010 examined whether recidivism was associated with being on a public sex offender registry list. The study used reported sex crime figures from 15 states within the United States from 1990 to 2008. Results showed that the post SORN period (1995-2008) had a 13% reduction in sex crime recidivism compared to the pre SORN period (1990-1994). The study found that this reduction in sex crime recidivism was due to the local population (neighbors, friends, family etc) increasing the use of preventative strategies to protect oneself and/or others, which limited the opportunity for offenders to commit sex crimes (Prescott & Rockoff, 2011).

Adopting a public sex offender registry list in Australia would deter crime because the punishment of being on a register is greater than the gain of committing the offence, furthermore being on a register would incapacitate offenders as they lose the opportunity to commit sexual crimes through restrictions in work/living, and by the community taking precautionary measures around you.

The deterrence theory is reliant on assumptions about human nature. It assumes that people are naturally hedonistic and that they weigh the punishment received from committing a crime against the possible gain from it. It assumes that for punishment to have any effect on behavior it must be certain, swift and sufficiently severe (Matza & Bloomberg, 2017). However, when committing a crime a criminal does not consider their punishment. Instead the most influential factor in criminal behavior is certainty, as criminals will commit crime if the opportunity presents itself and they feel that they will not get caught (Akers, 2013; Wood, 2017). The argument that being on a public register would incapacitate sex offenders and prevent them the opportunity to commit sex crimes assumes that sex offenders meet their victims through loitering around the neighborhood, going to areas nearby with a high child to adult ratio etc. Research shows that through friends and family sex offenders meet their victims (Colombino, Mercado & Jeglic, 2009), instead of lurking in the neighborhood and waiting for a suitable victim to be without a guardian to protect them (Duwe, Donnay & Tewksbury, 2008).

A public sex offender registry list has little to no effect on deterring sex crime. A study completed in 2011 examined whether the recidivism of sex offenders was associated with a introduced public sex offender registry list. Two samples of sex offenders were used in the sample. The first was 248 sex offenders post SORN and the second was 247 sex offenders pre SORN. Results showed that SORN did not reduce sex offender recidivism with there being no significant differences in sex crime recidivism between the two groups (Tewksbury, Jennings & Zgoba, 2012). Another study completed in 2003 looked at the overall arrest rates of offenders when released from prison. The sample was made up on 9,691 male sex offenders and 272,111 other male offenders who were released from prison in 1994 in the United States. Within three years of their release, 43% (4163) of the sex offenders were arrested, with 5.3% (517) being related to new sex crimes. In comparison to the non sex offenders who after three years had 68% (179,391) re arrested for any type of crime (Langan, Schmitt & Durose, 2003). Public sex offender registry lists have no association with low sex crime recidivism rates (Tewksbury, Jennings & Zgoba, 2012), nor does it have anything to do with a lack of opportunity to commit crimes (Colombino, Mercado & Jeglic, 2009; Duwe, Donnay & Tewksbury, 2008), instead the low rates of recidivism in sex crimes is explained by not many sex offenders recommitting sex crimes upon leaving prison (5.3%). Furthermore compared to other groups of offenders they are less likely to recommit any type of offence (Langan, Schmitt & Durose, 2003).

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Being on a public sex offender registry list negatively impacts sex offenders. The labeling theory explains that when someone is given a label of a criminal they can choose to either accept it or reject it. If an individual rejects the criminal label, they attempt to return to society and its norms and conform to its rules. If they choose to accept and subscribe to that label, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where they start or continue to commit the crime (Becker, 1963). Being labeled as a sex offender is highly stigmatized and with it comes unintended consequences that psychologically, socially and economically influence the lives of sex offenders (Mingus & Burchfield, 2012; Jenkins, 1998). The social and psychological impact of being labeled a sex offender was analyzed in a study completed in 2012. 150 sex offenders on the Illinois sex offender registry were the sample. Results showed that upon release from prison, sex offenders felt severely stigmatized, which lead to maladaptive coping strategies (i.e. being feared of discrimination so being anti-social) that exacerbated the very social issues and problems that may have initiated and led to such deviant behavior (Mingus & Burchfield, 2012). 

A public sex offender registry list should not be adopted in Australia because it has been shown to have little to no deterrence effect on sex offenders due to the fact that offenders act on opportunity and not severity of punishment, furthermore being labeled as a sex offender and being put on a public sex offender registry list has collateral consequences.

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         Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2013: Offender registration legislation in each Australian state and territory. Available: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/offender-registration-legislation-each-australian-state-and-territory

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