New Zealand was a latecomer in establishing a register for sex offenders. Now, however, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley seems intent on making up for lost time. A register with information on child-sex offenders will be introduced next July. Already Ms Tolley is talking of extending this to all sex offenders and certain high-risk violent criminals. Her enthusiasm may prove premature in that many of the factors that caused this country to hesitate over a register for the best part of 15 years remain relevant today.
Such registers routinely throw up conflicts between the interests of released offenders' privacy and rehabilitation and the community's interest in monitoring their movements. The Attorney-General thinks the legislation establishing the New Zealand register breaches the Bill of Rights Act. That cuts no ice with Ms Tolley. "I am on the side of the kids," she says. On the subject of child-sex offences, most people will overwhelmingly agree. Children's safety must be paramount. But in terms of human rights and practicality, there is cause to pause and consider some refinements before going further.
The register, which will have up-to-date details such as a child-sex offender's address and workplace, will be managed by the police and shared with agencies such as Child, Youth and Family, Corrections, and the Social Development Ministry. The data may also be released to a third party, perhaps a parent or teacher, where there is a threat to a child. Convicted child-sex offenders will be tracked for life, 15 years or eight years, depending on the severity of their crimes.
A study by Columbia University and the University of Michigan found such registers do reduce sexual reoffending. But as the New Zealand police have noted, there is, as yet, neither information nor evidence to quantify the benefit of a child-sex register. Certainly, its advantages should not be over-egged. When a sex crime occurs, police will be able to locate known paedophiles living in an area. But knowing their whereabouts will not necessarily stop the crime. Equally, registers are a blunt instrument. They treat all released prisoners the same, paying no heed to the fact three out of four sex offenders do not reoffend.
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Obviously, extending the register will involve far greater expense than the $146 million over 10 years currently budgeted. And with that cost will come more human rights concerns. Ms Tolley has been to Britain to assess its register, which has already struck trouble, with the Supreme Court ruling automatic lifetime inclusion is a disproportionate penalty. Offenders there can now apply to have their names removed after 15 years.
All this points to the desirability of a nuanced approach. The operation of this country's child-sex register will be reviewed three years after its introduction. Refinement will surely be suggested before any thought is given to extending it. Most likely, this would see offenders assessed case by case as they leave prison. Those guilty of serious offences or deemed likely to reoffend would belong on a register and must be tracked. Rehabilitated offenders would have their rights respected.