Concerns over plans for public online sex offender register

A public child sex offender register risks exposing the identities of victims or inciting vigilante attacks, critics in Canberra have warned.

The Morrison government said on Wednesday it would seek the agreement of the states and territories to create the national register to combat rising child sexual abuse.

The public online register would include the person's name, photograph, aliases, date of birth, nature of offending and postcode.

The information would be vetted by law enforcement to ensure it did not identify victims of abuse or breach non-publication orders and juvenile sex offenders would not be identified.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said reports of child sexual abuse and exploitation in Australia to the Australian Federal Police rose by 77 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

He said the register would "have a strong deterrent effect on offenders and ensure that parents are not in the dark about whether a registered sex offender has access to their children".

A spokesman for Police Minister Mick Gentleman said the ACT government needed to see more detail before it could comment on Mr Dutton's proposal.

All states and territories have had laws since 2007 requiring offenders to tell authorities about their whereabouts for a period, which feeds into a national child offender system that allows state and territory police across Australia to share information. ACT Policing said there were 169 registered child sex offenders in the territory.

Child protection registries - like the Australia Federal Police's ACT Child Sex Offender Registry Team - can also ask the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to cancel the passports of registered offenders or request the surrender of a foreign passport.

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However research from the Australian Institute of Criminology last year showed while public registers could have a small deterrent effect on first time offenders, they did not reduce re-offending.

The rate of recidivism among convicted sex offenders is already low compared to other crimes, even when accounting for under-reporting or low detecting rates.

The public registers also did little to reduce fear in the community, despite widespread support for their introduction.

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates said while the protection and safety of children was paramount, any initiatives must be evidence-based and effective.

"The risk of publication is not enough to deter offenders. We must continue looking at the research to identify better ways to keep children safe," Ms Yates said.

There are also concerns victims could be inadvertently identified through the publication of an abuser.

The Australian Institute of Criminology research said of the 21,380 victims of sexual assault recorded by police in 2015, about three-quarters of sexual assault victims knew their offender. For about one-third of sexual assault victims, the offender was a family member.

"Whilst some victims would want their abusers to be publicly named and shamed the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and a large proportion by a family member," Ms Yates said.

"In Australia, 83 per cent of child victims of sexual assault aged 0 to14 years are assaulted by someone they know. Public registries of child sex offenders can bring the very real risk of victims being identified.

"Disclosure of this very personal information could very likely lead to further re-traumatisation for the victim and have other detrimental impacts on their life and safety."

Earlier research has also found public sex offender registries can place additional burden on the law enforcement agencies responsible for their operation.

A 2012 review of the United States' public registers found 44 per cent of registered sexual offenders reported experiencing threats or harassment by neighbours, while about 20 per cent experienced threats or harassment in genera

Australian Federal Police Association president Angela Smith was concerned a register could lead to an increase in vigilante attacks.

"I can only speak from a policing perspective, and what concerns us is that if these offenders’ whereabouts are known there will be an absolute uproar and vigilantism. And then we’re prosecuting people who attack those who are listed on the register," Ms Smith said.

"Some people out there in the community may feel that’s OK but where does that leave police who have to deal with the vigilantes and their offences? The other concern is those on the register will leave their jurisdictions and not report to authorities and then we lose track of them altogether."