By Maggie Hall . . . Calls for public access to information about convicted child sex offenders occur often in Australia. It may seem like common sense that allowing the public to know the whereabouts of dangerous people should increase community safety. As in many areas of criminal justice, the real story is more complicated. . . .
Child sex offenders are required to keep police informed of their address and other personal details for a period of time (which varies across states and the nature of convictions) after they are released into the community. But in most Australian states, these details are not available to the public.
Besides the political appeal of being seen to crack down on crime, evidence shows public sex offender registers do more harm than good. The Australian Institute of Criminology recently reviewed the latest evidence from Australia and overseas on the effectiveness of public and non-public sex offender registries. The report concluded:
. . . while public sex offender registries may have a small general deterrent effect on first time offenders, they do not reduce recidivism. Further, despite having strong public support, they appear to have little effect on levels of fear in the community.
A 2011 US paper compared research on offending rates of sex offenders who appear on public registers and those don’t. It detected little difference in rates of re-offending between the two groups. These registers can have other, unintended, consequences including creating community panic and vigilante attacks. . . .
Conversely, some researchers have considered whether registries actually do the opposite and magnify safety fears. In 2007, residents of an upstate New York town displayed what the researchers called “community-wide hysteria,” including sleeping difficulties, after notification about sex offenders living nearby.
Others have raised concerns access to registers may lead to a false sense of security and perpetuate myths about “stranger danger” when most child sex offenders are known by, and are often related to, the victim. Some Australian groups have expressed concerns that publication in small communities may mitigate against reporting, as well as identify and stigmatize victims. . . .