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Look again at ‘sex register’ plan
A sexual offenders register is a good thing—but only if it is properly managed and there is a clear, well thought-out policy on how it should be used, by whom and for what purpose. Unfortunately, there is no indication that such is the case with the register now being compiled by the Police Service.
The media and the public were taken by surprise on Monday when police public affairs officer Sgt Wayne Mystar announced that such a register was in the making. And on further investigation, the T&T Guardian discovered that the police were sending mixed signals.
Sgt Mystar said the proposed register would be open to the public, while a senior officer was outraged at that idea. In other jurisdictions, such data is used, not only by law enforcement but by social workers and other professionals to keep track of convicted sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children.
The intent is to keep such offenders, who have a high rate of recidivism, from getting into any place where they could have easy access to potential victims. In the US, for example, convicted child rapists are severely restricted in where they can live, work, or even socialise.
In the UK, there is a scheme under “Sarah’s Law”—named after a victim—by which parents can check whether someone with regular access to their children has a history of child sex offences. Deputy Police Commissioner Mervyn Richardson, however, said indignantly that if access to an offenders register were available to the public, that would be an invasion of the privacy of such offenders.
But the issue is not that simple. If a convicted offender has the right to privacy, how should that be weighed against the public’s right to know? The offenders in question have been tried, found guilty and probably named and shown in the media. So what does “privacy” mean after that?
If an offender has paid the penalty, however, is it fair to him to pursue him after he has served his term and been released back into society? If information about the whereabouts of such offenders becomes public, would there be witch-hunts? Would they be hounded out of their homes, or even physically attacked?
But on the other hand, do the police alone have the capacity to manage this situation and take steps to prevent possible further offences? Consider the present circumstances. The police have proudly announced that they are setting up a register.
This is a requirement of the Sexual Offences Amendment Act—which was passed in 2000. Twelve years later, the police are just beginning to set up the register and are not clear about who will have access to it. Under that act, sexual offenders are required to notify the police in their district of their address. Should they fail to do so, they are liable to fines and possible imprisonment. Have those requirements of the act been enforced for the past 12 years?
The snail-like pace at which the police are progressing towards complying with the act does not inspire confidence. Simply putting a law in place is not enough. In other respects, too, this country does not have a good track record of protecting children against abuse.
The best approach, with the aim of protecting children and other potential victims, is surely a joint one. The Police Service needs to lay down and implement a clear policy on the storage and use of the data to be filed in the offenders register.
Hopefully, the police will revisit the plan to make the information available only to law-enforcement personnel and settle on a compromise that will be to the benefit of all concerned.
There are other professionals, such as social workers, who could be brought in to work with the police to use the register effectively to track offenders and safeguard the community from sexual predators.
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