An article headlined 'Name them! Children's advocate wants sex offenders identified', published on May 18, 2012 in the Jamaica Observer, reports the position of Children's Advocate Ms Diahann Gordon Harrison on community notification of sex registries in Jamaica.
Ms Gordon Harrison recommends the public dissemination of sex offenders' personal information as a "proactive step" toward reducing the prevalence of sex crimes. Notwithstanding the difficult human rights questions that would arise from taking this step, her position is of great concern, as it seems to stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of the effectiveness of publication.
In particular, the conclusions reached by Ms Gordon Harrison as to the utility of publication are contrary to a number of studies, which have emanated from varying jurisdictions.
The children's advocate supports her claim by suggesting that:
1. Naming offenders will act as a deterrent to potential offenders and re-offenders; and
2. The publication of sex registries will somehow address the failure of our judicial system to implement punishment and the police force to provide sufficient evidence to bring cases to trial.
While I agree that there may be problems with the judicial system, the police force and how they address sexual violence, there is simply no empirical evidence that identifies any correlation between curing these issues and the publication of sex registers.
I share Ms Gordon Harrison's hope to see a significant decline in sex crimes. However, taking the suggested course of action cannot and will not accomplish this. Research across several jurisdictions indicates that publicising sex registries is largely ineffective and, moreover, in some cases, can increase the prevalence of crime.
First, the publication of sex registries has proven to be an ineffective deterrent. A study conducted by Letournou, et al (2010) looked at the effect of sex registries and public notification on violence against women in South Carolina. After a six-year follow-up period, the publication of sex registries was found to have no effect on reducing sex offences against women.
There was also no evidence to suggest that unregistered sex offenders were more likely to reoffend than registered ones. Similar evidence may be found in Adkins, et al (2000) and Zevitz (2006). Currently, only the United States and South Korea publicise sex offender registries. Neither of these countries has reported a decline in sex offences as a result of community notification.
Perhaps of greater significance is that the evidence suggests that publicising sex registries may increase the prevalence of crime in general and of sexual offences in particular. California experienced a significant increase in rape following the publication of its sex registries (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2007/09/11/us-sex-offender-laws-may-do-more-harm-good).
In addition, the National Council on Institutions and Alternatives (2005), after conducting an exhaustive study, argued that publication of sex offender registries could increase the risk posed to potential victims. Exposing the identity of sex offenders to the public is likely to force offenders to silence their victims permanently so that they are less likely to get caught.
Moreover, the attempt to deter sex offenders can often urge them to victimise others. For instance, Megan's Law originally was originally introduced to empower law enforcement officials to publicise the details of convicted sex offenders. However, this created adverse conditions that directly undermine the prevention of reoffending (Montana, 1995).
Publication of sex registries can often encourage feelings of alienation, poor self-esteem with the undesired and dangerous result of offenders wanting to reoffend (Worling & Curwen, 2000).
Sex offenders are not the only ones put at risk when registries are publicised.
Evidence suggests that publicising sex registries results in serious consequences for sex offenders' families (Levenson & Cotter, 2005a; 2005b; Levenson & Hern, 2007; Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009; Human Rights watch, 2007). A survey of 584 family members of registered US sex offenders revealed that they are impacted adversely by the publication of sex registries (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).
Family members living with a registered sex offender experienced threats by neighbours. Some children of registered sex offenders suffered stigmatisation by teachers and classmates. This is likely to hold true in Jamaica, since our communities are small and individuals are well known to each other.
All that being said, by no means am I arguing that the public should be left in the dark about issues regarding their safety. However, officials have a responsibility to ensure that their recommendations are informed by definitive information and will ultimately achieve the desired result.
Instead of promoting a type of popular punitivism which has consistently led our country and others astray, let us take up our moral and constitutional obligation to question officialdom, particularly in instances where the public is affected directly.
In view of the plethora of available information on sex registries and community notification, I would urge Ms Gordon Harrison and others to avail themselves of such information while making any recommendations that are likely to affect public policy, as I fear that the position which is being currently advocated will undoubtedly lead to more harm than good.
Diahann Gordon Harrison