Sexual Offences Act: a stitch in time saves nine

Thursday, December 13, 2012

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IN the cauldron of excitement which is Jamaica, it could easily have escaped attention that parliamentarians voted their conscience on Tuesday in approving the much-awaited regulations for the Sexual Offences Act.

The 'divide' vote is rare, but is always critical to signal that a particular issue has escaped the tendency to play political football and to carry the party line, irrespective of the magnitude of the issue.

The Sexual Offences Act makes provisions for the prosecution of rape and other sexual offences and further provides for the establishment of a Sex Offenders Registry and a Sex Offenders Register. Part VII of the Act, which makes provisions for the register and registry, has not been brought into effect as the consensus is that the two cannot operate without regulations in force to guide their operations.

The Act as been almost three years in the making and, left to some parliamentarians, it would have been further delayed Tuesday had not the legislators abandoned party position.

At 6:28 pm, the regulations were passed with 25 parliamentarians giving support, inclusive of Opposition members of parliament (MPs) Shahine Robinson and Olivia 'Babsy' Grange. The Opposition's Dr Horace Chang and Karl Samuda abstained from voting, while the remaining five Opposition MPs voted no.

Mr Pearnel Charles, Opposition MP for Central Clarendon, argued that the Sex Offenders Registry should be kept by the police rather than the Department of Corrections as the regulations in their present form gave too much protection to rapists. He further proposed that the regulations should be withdrawn and the debate suspended to allow for a review. He was supported by colleague MP Mr Gregory Mair.

The Opposition's Delroy Chuck, for his part, urged that the debate be suspended to allow for further discussions, given the fears, and he received support from his colleague MP Marisa Dalrymple-Phillibert who, even while acknowledging that the legislation "has been on the table for a long time", warned the House to "not just pass something for passing it, just because it has been around since 2009".

We side with the sensible position taken by Ms Grange who acknowledged that the fears of making the names and identities of convicted released sex offenders known could lead to vigilante justice, but argued that the information should be made available to a wider selection of persons than the police and the courts.

"The registry should not just be a vault to protect information on predators, but should act as a source of information to schools and others," she said. "We realise there must be restrictions to accessing the registry, but not total restrictions. Establish the registry, but when it is up and running we must iron out the kinks," she suggested.

Importantly, Attorney General Patrick Atkinson noted that the designated keeper of the records is at liberty to inform victims or their guardians of the whereabouts of the offender. "Persons who are considered vulnerable, and who the offender will pose a risk to, those persons will have the information," he said.

The truth of the matter is that no one piece of legislation is ever perfect. That is why amendments are made from time to time, to take into consideration new developments and imperfections that are identified.

While we continue to record over 75 rapes a month, there is no place for indefinite delays.




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