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Debate: Naming and shaming of sex offenders

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Should sex offenders be named and shamed?

Background and context

At the moment, in the UK for example, a national register of sex offenders exists, which is only accessible to the police for the purposes of criminal detection. There have been calls for such a register to be made public in the interests of public safety, along the lines of ‘Megan’s Law’ in the US. ‘Megan’s Law’ was named after Megan Kanka, a seven year old girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered; the law says that all local law enforcement agencies are obliged to reveal to members of the public a list of sex offenders who live under their jurisdiction. The most recent campaign for such a register in the UK was in the aftermath of the Sarah Payne murder, the calls for ‘Sarah’s Law’, and the ‘News of the World’s’ controversial mass printing of the names and addresses of sexual offenders that followed, which resulted in many attacks on the person and property of those listed.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Sex offenders, even more so than other forms of crime, are prone to re-offending upon release from prison. Therefore, to protect society, they should be required to register with a local police station, and their names and addresses should be made available to the public. Police would also supply this information to relevant parties, such as schools and nurseries, who will be consequently far more alert to any risk. Parents would find this information invaluable in ensuring their children’s safety, and it would cut the rate of sexual crime by those freed from prison. In the end, we have to protect our children at any cost.

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No

This proposal is a fundamental violation of the principles of our penal system, which are based on the serving of a set punishment before being freed. This registration imposes a new punishment for an old crime, and, inevitably, will lead to sex offenders being demonised by their neighbours, and possible forced to move out. In the UK the publication of addresses by the ‘News of the World’ led to widespread hate campaigns and violence, sometimes against innocent people with similar names, or people living in a house listed in the newspaper as that of a sex offender. Such a risk cannot be tolerated; we cannot as a society revert back to mob rule in place of justice.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Crimes of a sexual nature are among the most abhorrent and damaging that exist; they can ruin a child’s life. As the offenders responsible for these offences cannot be incarcerated for ever, and must be released at some point, extra precautions must be taken to ensure they pose no threat to the public.

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No

The proposition are muddying the waters. Psychological evaluations can determine accurately whether an offender is still a risk to society or not. If they are, they should not be released. If they are not, they should be freed and allowed to live a normal life. A register eliminates this distinction, and stigmatises those who have genuinely reformed. We have a penal system at the heart of which is the principle of reforming offenders, and it is ludicrous to simply ignore the possibility of change.

Studies have shown sex offenders recidivate at far lower rates than is commonly believed, treatment has been found to be quite effective, and successful reintegration and rehabilitation programmes are integral to further reducing the rate of re-offense. Public registers merely reinforce the tired stereotype that sex offenders can never be rehabilitated.

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Argument #3

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Yes

A national register would allow police to track down re-offenders faster, thus increasing the success rate and the speed at which they are brought to justice. It would also provide a strong deterrent against re-offence in its own right.

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No

The original intent of a register in America under the Jacob Wetterling Act was to make a tool for laws enforcement in the event of cetain crimes, not as a public disclosure tool. Police work can be aided by a register that is only available to law enforcement agencies; making it public adds no advantage.

Indeed, it might be counter-productive as the abuse that offenders would have to suffer might drive them underground, thus causing the police to lose track of them. Recent studies have shown that registers are subject to abuse by the public. Around 2 of every 5 registrants and those residing with registrants have reported acts of vigilantism as the result of public registers, including around 200 known murders. The social ostracism, denial of rehabilitative measure such as housing and stable employment, and threats of vigilantism offer incentives for Former Offenders to disobey reporting requirements.

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Argument #4

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Yes

A national register would benefit sexual offenders directly, as they would be on local registers of counselling and psychological help groups, who would be more able to offer help.

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No

This is spurious; offenders should have access to these services anyway, regardless of whether their names are available to the general public or not. As evidenced by the American practice, the register has led to a wholesale disenfranchisement of those listed on the register, along with their families. The register is propagates myths and stereotypes used by the public to justify this ostracism and denial of services. Sex offenders in America have lost jobs, housing, and treatment options and forced to live under ever-changing reporting requirements.

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