Six questions before we have a sex offender registry

MAY 11 ― Amid all the talk about Nur Fitri Azmeer Nordin this past week, one question caught my attention: Why doesn’t Malaysia have a national sex offender registry?

The real question is whether we should have one. The police chief clearly thinks we don’t need one, saying it would be redundant as we already have a registry of those with criminal records in general.

But the horrific sex crimes we’ve been hearing about in the news, especially those involving children and teens, point to a yes. The child porn collection of Nur Fitri, some of which depicts hardcore sexual acts involving children that shocked even the police officers who regularly come into contact with child pornography, says yes. Our hearts scream yes.

So we pass a law that creates this registry, name and shame any sexual offender from hereon and we live safer ever after. Correct?

Not quite. Here are six things to think (and talk) about before we do this.

Would it be redundant as the IGP said?

The police chief has a point. A separate sex offender registry would overlap with the existing registry of convicted criminals. However, this argument misses the point.

The argument in favour is we need to be able to check if someone was previously convicted of sexual offenses, especially against children. Think single fathers or mothers seeking to remarry, for example. A specific registry for this purpose helps.

And it won’t just be helpful for the public. The point of this registry in many countries is to help authorities track where previously convicted sexual offenders are and what they are doing. Are we tracking the exact movement and activity of every single person with a criminal record in Malaysia? Can we?

This registry has a narrower focus and tracking is easier. It guards against people changing their names to hide their sexual offense record, for instance. So no, it won’t be redundant.

If we do this, what sort of access should the public have?

Maybe you’re wondering why we shouldn’t have full access. The short answer: misguided vigilante justice. In 2006 two previously convicted sex offenders in the US were murdered after their details were found by someone who decided they should die despite having served their sentence. (He killed himself after murdering them.)

And no, naming and shaming these people with free public access does not deter them from repeat offenses, based on previous studies.

A 2010 paper found that creating a registry reduces recidivism (tendency to reoffend) but only if such registry is only accessible to the authorities. Instead, making the registry freely accessible to the public increases recidivism.

So how? What we can do is create a registry that is only freely accessible to the law enforcement people but which allows you information on an individual (if the person is listed) who is applying for a job at your company, for instance. Like how the UK does it.

Then who should monitor the registry?

Definitely not the IGP per se, his plate is full between running the police force and tweeting a lot. And probably not the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development ― we’re talking about people who have committed serious crimes.

A brand new agency? Bad idea. We have plenty of things splintered into separate overlapping agencies already and sometimes it’s not clear who does what, especially when two or more people seem like they’re supposed to.

But we do have a division under the Royal Malaysian Police Force called the Sexual Investigation Division. Beef up this division with some extra personnel, some training and expertise transfer from other countries with experience running this sort of registry and we should be alright.

How do we decide who gets put onto the list?

There are three ways this is decided in other countries. One, they use a screening tool to assess the risk posed by a convicted offender ― if sufficiently risky, an entry in the registry.

Second way is to include a convicted offender who was sentenced more than a set number of years in jail. Any fewer and the offender would not be listed.

The third way is include anyone who commits any one of a pool of offense types.

So which one is best? The first method emphasises the dangerousness of the individual to society while the second emphasises the severity of the offence. The third method emphasises neither.

If we do this, my money is on the first method ― it’s about the risk they pose.

Will it help guard our kids against paedophiles and other sexual dangers?

A majority of sexual offenses are committed by people known to the victim, not strangers. Many sex crimes go unreported. So will this registry help?

On one hand, the 2010 study (above) also noted that this registry may deter potential first-time offenders. On the other, another US study found that sex offender recidivism is slightly lower in states where sex offenders were not required to register compared to states where they have to.

So the debate is still open on its effectiveness.

And then there is that human rights thing...

Children ― and everyone else ― has a right to be protected against sexual offenses. However does this right need to be upheld at the expense of former offenders’ right to start over? That is the question that the Human Rights Watch had been asking.

Thoughtless implementation of such monitoring systems, however well-intentioned, can go wrong. We presume that once a sex offender, always a sex offender. We presume that sexual offenses against children are often by strangers.

But both are false presumptions. For instance, in 2006 the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that more than 90 per cent of sexual offense cases involving child victims were done by someone who was not a stranger.

Some types of sex offenders have higher recidivism rates than others, for sure. The US Department of Justice in 2001, for example, found that same-sex child molesters had a recidivism rate of 53 per cent while other types have lower rates.

So how we go about doing this registry, if we choose to, is important to consider. The essential question is: Should sex offenders be punished for the rest of their lives?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles