Kim Workman: Forget sex offender register - focus must be on prevention

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One of the Government's goals is to reduce reported crime by 15 per cent. Photo / Mark Mitchell
One of the Government's goals is to reduce reported crime by 15 per cent. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Cabinet's agreement to establish a child sex offenders' register, but to limit it to government agency access, is a cautious step in a dangerous direction.

Publicly accessible registers in the United States have not worked, and there is evidence that they have increased the level of offending.

The UK model, after which the New Zealand model is likely to follow, has been operating since 1997. It hasn't done any great harm, but there is no evidence it has protected children from sexual abuse.

Why, then, invest in a costly and time-consuming process, in the absence of any evidence for its success? Is it that, once again, politicians have fallen prey to the rhetoric and remonstrations of the punitive few?

If we're serious about protecting our children from sexual abuse, then we need a strategy which deals with the facts.

First, 90 per cent of all child sex abuse is unreported and the offenders are unknown to the police.

Second, 80 per cent of all sex offenders in prison are there for the first time; they had no known history of offending. None of those people will be on the register - how will that protect our kids?

Third, one of the Government's goals is to reduce reported crime by 15 per cent, which won't help us fish out the 90 per cent of offenders yet to be detected.

Fourth, most families who have a sex offender in their midst (including rapists), will not report them to the police because of the trauma involved in the judicial process, and their exposure to community shaming and stigmatisation.

To achieve meaningful results, we need to take an entirely different approach.

First, we need a goal in which the justice sector is required to increase the percentage of previously unknown child sex offenders reported to the police.

Second, the Government needs to accept it is important to provide opportunities for families to bypass the criminal justice system and refer the offending family member to a community-based sex offenders' treatment programme. Prevention is more important than punishment. When families know they can get funded treatment and support without being exposed to public shame and ridicule, they will be more likely to act.

That, in turn, calls for another government goal: to increase the number of previously unknown sex offenders referred for community-based treatment.

Finally, we need a social marketing programme similar to the "It's Not OK" campaign, which encourages families and community to take protective action, provides good information to them about child sex offending, and tells them what they can do to keep their children safe.

More legislation and measures of control and monitoring will not work.

Why not become a world leader in reducing child sex crime, rather than continuing to emulate unsuccessful programmes from overseas.

Kim Workman is founder of and strategic adviser to Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

- NZ Herald

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