Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vigilance or Vigilantism?

Last Monday, a website was launched by a Christian group in Alberta whose purpose is to make public the names and addresses of people who have been convicted of sex crimes against children. Until now, of all the countries in the world, only the U.S. has had a public registry where any citizen can do a search for predators in their area and find the details on each one. Nowhere else has the information on offenders been put on official websites. While this new site is not an official Canadian website, it will have the same effect – even though the information may not be as complete.

In Canada, a national sex offender registry came into force in December 2004, requiring convicted offenders to register within 15 days after being released from prison. Offenders are required to reregister annually, and reregister within two weeks of changing their home address. Only accredited police agencies have access to the information through the national sex offender database, maintained by the Mounties.

The launching of this new, private site gives rise to several questions. Will a public registry ensure the safety of children? What is the downside? Will this really make for a better society?

I believe this site will cause more problems than it will solve, that children will actually be placed at higher risk and it will turn a certain element of society into a pack of vigilantes.

Don’t even think about labeling me as soft on predators. As someone who has had her family and marriage destroyed by two of them, I’m hardly a naive “do-gooder” who has been manipulated into feeling sorry for these people. Quite the contrary. But neither am I so blinded by revenge and hatred that I cannot see clearly and find the course of action which will most surely protect our little ones. Having said that, I absolutely believe that violent offenders and repeat offenders need to be locked up permanently. No question.

But what about the offenders who have been “scared straight” in prison or are so genuinely remorseful that they can be rehabilitated? The myth that offenders usually reoffend is just that - a myth. In my booklet, “Smart Justice,” I underline the dangers of a knee-jerk response to predators who, following release from prison, try to rebuild their lives and re-enter society. I did a ton of research in my writing and was concerned about the findings of some of the researchers and treatment providers who determined that the stress and instability following release can make offenders more likely to relapse. For example, a professor at Lynn University in Florida reported that psycho-social stresses like a lack of social support have been linked to repeat offenses among criminals.

I watched a documentary that followed the lives of several child molesters after their release from prison in the U.S. The vigilantism engendered by the public registry made it impossible for them to support themselves or their families, have relationships or re-start their lives in any way that could contribute to society. Some have formed horrible, scary communes from shacks in the woods where they live in exile from society. Is that what we want in Canada – communes of people united by the red letters on their chests? Depression and loss of hope can become precursers to reoffending, sometimes purposefully, because life on the outside is harder than in prison.

I’m not ready to risk the safety of any child who could become some predator’s ticket back into a place where it’s warm and they serve three squares a day.

We need to be smart - not impulsive. We need wisdom. We can’t afford the luxury of following our natural inclinations in responding to child molesters.

So what am I suggesting? The only thing that makes sense to me is permanent lockup for violent and repeat offenders and permanent electronic monitoring of those who have been released into the community. GPS offender tracking technology monitors offenders day and night, raising the offender’s level of responsibility for his or her own actions, which in turn protects the community.

The logic is that a sex offender is a suspect when any sexual crime is committed. Wearing an electronic bracelet would clear anyone who is under suspicion by providing proof positive of the person’s whereabouts. Conversely, it would also aid in apprehending the perpetrator.

When a crime occurs, the location of the offenders would be matched against a crime incident database to validate or rule out possible involvement by a particular offender. Any released offender who truly commits to a changed life should be happy to wear one – for his or her own security as well as that of anyone else.

Electronic monitoring can be used to ensure that an individual remains in a designated place, does not enter proscribed areas, or does not approach particular people (i.e. complainants, potential victims or co-offenders). A person can be continuously tracked without having their movements so restricted that they can’t work or conduct a productive life. An active real-time offender tracking system can alert either a victim or police if the offender enters certain restricted areas (i.e. a home, workplace or school).

If the rationale against permanent monitoring is based on the concept of freedom following the legally proscribed period of incarceration, how does a public registry fit that rationale? It eliminates freedom permanently.

Frankly, I believe that when a crime has been committed against a child, a perpetrator signs away his or her right to freedom for life - so freedom isn’t my issue. My issue is with using wisdom in how we legislate the restrictions.

Will a public registry really make for a better society? I don’t think so. Judging from my research, it won’t make our kids safer and it will encourage licence for a mindless pack-mentality. Justice needs to be smart. Justice needs to get the job of protection for our kids done right. Justice needs to foster effective vigilance - not vigilantism.
© Diane Roblin-Lee - Apr. 29/12

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