Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

What Impact Do Public Sex Offender Registries Have on Community Safety?

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

What Impact Do Public Sex Offender Registries Have on Community Safety?

Article excerpt

Sexual offending is a serious and harmful crime, particularly when it affects children, and often sparks significant community interest in the response by law enforcement and government. The modus operandi of sex offenders can vary widely, and the causes of sexual offending are complex, which means combating sexual offending can present significant challenges. A variety of policies and programs have been trialled internationally with the goal of preventing sexual offending and deterring convicted sex offenders from reoffending once released back into the community. One of these policies has been the adoption of public sex offender registries.

In the United States, information on the name, appearance and location of high-risk sex offenders has been available to the public for 20 years. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was introduced, requiring convicted sex offenders released into the community to register with law enforcement. In 1996, Megan's Law was passed federally as a subsection of the Jacob Wetterling Act. Megan's Law requires law enforcement agencies to make information on registered sex offenders available to the public, which enables individuals to search for registered sex offenders living in their community.

Since 2000, when legislation was first introduced in New South Wales (NSW), Australia has operated under a different model. This has involved non-public registration, the primary purpose of which is to support monitoring of convicted sex offenders by law enforcement agencies. More recently, a restricted public sex offender registry was introduced in Western Australia (WA). However, recent calls for a national public sex offender register in Australia (ABC 2014; Skinner 2016) and for a state register in Victoria (Bell 2017) have brought the issue into public debate. Further, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has brought into focus the lasting and tragic impact that child sexual assault can have on victims, and the importance of criminal justice responses to offending behaviour (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2016).

The aim of this paper was to review the available empirical evidence to address three key research questions:

* To what extent do public and non-public sex offender registries reduce sexual offending and reoffending?

* To what extent do public sex offender registries influence perceptions of safety among the wider community?

* What additional issues need to be considered when discussing the feasibility of a national public sex offender registry?


There were 21,380 victims of sexual assault recorded by police in Australia in 2015, the highest recorded number in six years (ABS 2016). While there is significant media focus on sexual assault incidents committed by strangers, the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and a large proportion by a family member. In 2015, around three-quarters of sexual assault victims knew their offender, while for around one-third of sexual assault victims the offender was a family member (ABS 2016).

Contrary to popular belief, recidivism rates among convicted sex offenders are generally low compared with those of other offenders, even accounting for the potential for under-reporting or low detection rates (Lievore 2004; Richards 2011). Lievore (2004) examined 17 studies on sexual offending conducted in five different countries, several of which produced recidivism rates lower than 10 percent. Conversely, relatively few produced recidivism rates higher than 20 percent (Lievore 2004). A meta-analysis of 82 studies by Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2005) found that, overall, 14 percent of sex offenders had committed a further sexual offence, although certain offenders- such as those with antisocial orientation-are more likely to reoffend. …

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