13 Apr 2021

Does a sex offender register really keep children safe?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 13 April 2021
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Photo: 123RF

Urgent changes to the law on the child sex offender register mean hundreds of convicted offenders are back on the list. But one justice rights advocate says it doesn't mean that children are safer.

"What we know about child sex offending is that the vast majority of it goes undetected, unreported, unprosecuted in the community," says Jordan Anderson, whose PhD at Victoria University looks at the creation of the register and its impact.

"This register in New Zealand is solely a register for child sex offences, so we have not registered all sex offenders, we have deemed that sex offenders who have committed offences against children are the ones that need to be registered."

Today on The Detail, Anderson explains the tragic case of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989 in Minnesota that led to the establishment of a register in the US and triggered legislation to set up registers in other countries, including New Zealand.

In September 2016, the Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Register) Bill became law here, enabling police to start registering offenders.

Someone on the register has to provide police with up-to-date details such as their address, car registration, the children living in their household, and internet provider. They have to notify police if there are any changes, within 72 hours of the change, and at least 48 hours prior to travel or change of address. They must stay on the register for either eight years, 15 years or for life depending on the severity of the offence they committed and the sentence they received.

When the bill was introduced it was criticised for both being too harsh on the offenders and not going far enough to protect society. Among the criticisms: that offenders on the register do not have proper access to support programmes, that it is too intrusive, that it will only be effective if it is made public.

"The thinking behind this legislation ... as well as the amendments and attempts that we've seen over the last month to adjust it are essentially driven by the desire to keep kids safe," Anderson says. 

She commends the "intention of it" to address an information gap around the movements and activities of child sex offenders, in particular, living in the community. She says there is cross party consensus that there is a genuine community need to take greater action around sexual harm and abuse of children but there is "absolutely no evidence that this policy produces that result".

Anderson, who also chairs the justice advocacy group JustSpeak, has spoken to people on the register as well as community groups about the impact. She studied three cases where the community was notified or found out about sex offenders in the neighbourhood.

Currently around 2500 people - mostly men - are on the register after last month's law change, the Amendments to the Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Government Agency Registration) Act. 

It followed a Supreme Court decision in February that found the act was not clear enough about people who committed an offence before it came into force in 2016, and were convicted and sentenced after 14 October that year.

The court found it did not cover that group of offenders, so police had to remove "hundreds of individuals" from the Child Sex Offender Register.

The law change will mean the act now applies to all individuals who have committed a qualifying child sex offence, regardless of when the offence occurred.

Also last month, National's Matt Doocey tried unsuccessfully to bring in a law that would make it mandatory for Corrections to notify schools if there are sex offenders in the area. At the moment, the community is notified when police or Corrections deem it to be in the best interests of every person involved, including the offender. Panels in each district are responsible for deciding if notifications should be made.

Anderson told The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly why she's against mandatory notification of schools and the reaction of principals she has spoken to for her thesis.

In her ideal world, she says, there would be no register and offenders' names would be kept secret when they are released and they would get proper "wraparound" support in the community.

"The evidence that I have examined would indicate that things like registration and notification are major stresses in the lives of people that have offended and been released and the number one trigger for reoffending is stress."

Note: The Detail is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio above, as this written piece is a short summary of the podcast.