Contrary to what appears to be popular belief in Saint Lucia, the implementation of a sex offender registry does not necessarily mean that the public will have access to information in the registry.
A 2014 study conducted by the US Department of Justice revealed that only nineteen countries worldwide have sex offender registries, of which, only six countries have made provisions for the dissemination of information to the public. These six countries are: Bermuda, UK, USA, Maldives, Kenya and South Korea.
In most countries only law enforcement and other relevant government agencies have access to information in the sex offender registry. One of the debates surrounding sex offender registries is whether the information contained in them should be made available for public consumption. Before I address some of the issues surrounding public disclosure of such registries, I believe it is necessary to provide some background information on sex offender registries.
A sex offender registry is a tool which can be used by governments to keep track of the activities of sex offenders after they have served criminal sentences. Once placed in a registry, the individual is mandated to supply the police or the relevant government agency with the following information: residential address, place of employment, vehicular licence plate number, and out of state travel itinerary, plus a photo of self as well as providing evidence of new piercings, scars and tattoos. Information provided by the sex offender is updated on a regular basis.
Persons placed on the registry are usually not allowed to reside close to or work in schools, day-care centres or places where families socialize or recreate. The restrictions imposed vary according to jurisdiction and nature of the offence or risk posed by the offender.
Sex offender registries can contribute to a reduction in sexual crimes and violence. Knowing that someone is a sex offender serves to regulate the actions of the public to the extent that individuals can take precautionary measures to minimize their chances of becoming victims. With one’s name being publicized, he or she may have to work harder to create the place and time which is conducive to him or her recommitting a sex crime. Due to the amount of effort now required the individual may decide against committing sex crimes. Also by not allowing sex offenders to work in schools, day-care centres and places where families socialize, the likelihood of children being molested may decrease. First-time offenders may not want to risk the shame, embarrassment and discrimination they are likely to experience if they are placed on a sex offender registry.
It is without question that a sex offender registry can contribute to positive outcomes, but is this the only set of outcomes? Does the fact that an individual has committed a crime justify turning a blind eye to the potentially negative impact of a sex offender registry on the sex offender? Releasing information to the public on a sex offender can be equated to placing a target or red light on this individual. In the public’s eyes this red light translates into beware of this person since he or she is dangerous. Discrimination, social injustices, and public ridicule are some consequences sex offenders cannot escape especially within geographically small countries.
As a result of taking actions to protect themselves, people may not socialize and recreate with sex offenders. Also the sex offender may find it difficult to find employment since most people would not want to hire a sex offender. The individual’s self-employment prospects may become significantly limited, if not non-existent, since many individuals will refrain from doing business with a known sex offender. Discrimination is likely to reduce the sex offender to a state of non-being which is characterized by a poor sense of self, psychosocial problems and poverty. In response to experiencing second or no class of citizenship, the sex offender may resort to a life of crime to make ends meet and to develop a sense of self and belonging. Others may remain passive and sink further into a downward spiral.
The families of sex offenders are not immune to discrimination and ridicule. Though not having committed an offence, the children of sex offenders face the real possibility of being bullied and harassed at school and in the community. Some children of sex offenders sometimes become the target of insults, threats, name-calling and unwanted attention. Being unable to cope, these children may become depressed and choose to commit suicide. Others may perform poorly at school and even drop out in order to escape bullying. This type of negative treatment extends to the younger siblings of sex offenders. Though the children and siblings of sex offenders may have ordinarily faced discrimination anyway, the possibility of this being their plight is likely to increase if sex offender registries are made public. Is it right to pursue policies and measures which increase the likelihood of children and other family members becoming victims of discrimination and other forms of social injustice?
The publicizing of sex offender registries is tantamount to government institutionalizing and enabling discrimination and maltreatment of persons. Government’s responsibility, among many others, is creating a conducive environment where everyone can enjoy the freedoms of pursuing self-determined paths aimed at realizing their full human potential. Public sex offender registries are contrary to this responsibility of government. This is because public sex offender registries foster the creation of barriers in the path of sex offenders who may be making considerable effort to living a crime-free lifestyle after having been punished by serving time in prison and being successfully rehabilitated. Reintegration becomes more difficult with the implementation of public sex offender registries because people feel even more empowered not to give a second chance to someone who may be really trying to change his or her life.
The need to reduce sex crimes is significant, unquestionable and urgent. Every citizen has the right to feel safe in any space and to live a life which is not impacted by having been a victim of sexual crimes and violence. A sex offender registry can make a contribution to enhancing public safety and reducing sex crimes. Despite its benefits we should not overlook the potential negative impact it may have especially if it is accessible to the public. As such, a consideration must be given to whether it is made public and, if such is the case, what measures can be put in place to deal with the consequences. Our policies, efforts and approaches to crime should not contradict each other whereby on one hand we seek to highlight the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders and on the other we put barriers in place that hinder the realization of such goals. Our policies need to complement and enhance each other, so that we can create a society which is beneficial and just to all citizens.