Thoughtless Populism: Why Hinch’s Call For An Australian “Megan’s Law” Is Misguided

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Policies aimed at ‘naming and shaming’ sex offenders do not reduce the rate of offending. Although that’s unlikely to stop Derryn Hinch, writes Jarryd Bartle.

Federal Senator-elect, Derryn Hinch may spruik himself as an advocate for “common sense” but his Justice Party’s platform for a publicly accessible sex offender register is anything but.

Whilst it may seem intuitive to want to ‘name and shame’ sex offenders, the research shows that public notification registers have little to no impact on the rate of sex offending in the community, and carry with them a myriad of unintended harms.

The Justice Party’s proposal is largely based around “Megan’s Law” and similar policies instituted in the United States. These policies provide for a searchable, online database of sex offenders, which – depending on the state – provide the public with details such as an offender’s photo, name, address and details of their offending.

A very restricted version of a public register has been instituted in Western Australia, largely allowing publication of information for missing offenders and those classified as “high risk”. There have also been calls for a public register in the Northern Territory.

Ostensibly, public notification schemes are implemented to protect the community, so that families can be alert of potential predators in their neighbourhood. However, in practice such policies doubly punish offenders through public shaming and harassment.

Several studies have evaluated the impact of Megan’s Law and similar policies and have consistently shown they have no impact in reducing offending in the community.

One comprehensive evaluation of the impact of Megan’s Law by the New Jersey Department of Corrections found that the law “had no effect in reducing sexual re-offences” for those on the program and “no effect in reducing the number of victims”.

This has been echoed by similar comprehensive evaluations in South Carolina, New York and Washington.

IMAGE: Allie_Caulfield, Flickr)
IMAGE: Allie_Caulfield, Flickr)

On a more broader scale, studies of crime statistics on reported rape in 10 states in the US, both pre and post implementation of notification laws, also found no impact of the laws on the rate of offending.

Some studies, such as that conducted by J.J. Prescott of the University of Michigan and Johan Rockoff of Columbia University, have indicated that notification policies may increase the risk of reoffending in the community as they make it difficult for offenders to find employment, increase isolation and provide a significant barrier to rehabilitation.

There are also the many unintended harms caused by such laws. Vigilante violence and harassment against registered offenders following the introduction of Megan’s Law are well documented, as are the harms suffered by friends and family members of registered offenders.

One study by the University of Louisville in Kentucky found that over half of family members living with a registered offender experienced harassment from neighbors. Moreover, the study found that children of registered offenders reported negative, differential treatment by teachers and classmates as a result of the new laws.

Many harmful myths about sex offenders underlie the Justice Party’s stance on this issue, including the belief that most child sex offenders are pedophiles, that child sex offenders commonly target strangers, and that child sex offenders have high rates of recidivism – all of which are false.

Australia currently has police-monitored sex offender registers in most jurisdictions. There is also a national register for child sex offenders called the Australian National Child Offender Register (ANCOR), which monitors ‘at risk’ offenders by allowing police to share information between jurisdictions.

Given we have an effective system in place for investigators, there is absolutely no justification for a publicly accessible register.

Populist ‘law and order’ policies may have an emotional appeal with many members of the community, but they cannot disguise the ineffective and harmful consequences of such policies in practice.

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Jarryd Bartle

Jarryd Bartle is a policy consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets at @JarrydBartle .

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