Evidence Based Policy: Conservative Party Announces New Sex Offender Legislation

The Conservative Party of Canada has recently announced new legislation targeting those who commit sexual based offences.  The legislation would require those convicted of sexual offences to notify police in advance of international travel plans, and authorize broad information sharing between Canadian and international agencies.  

Most problematically Mr. Harper also promised a national, online database accessible to the public that would list information about offenders. 

A publicly accessible online database of offenders is a step that should be taken very hesitantly and with very careful examination given the potential disastrous implications (examples of which can be seen here and here).

Laws should be based on evidence with an honest accounting of all the potential costs and benefits.  This honesty is missing from Conservative Party policy.  

Given the Conservative Party's track record with criminal justice legislation I do not hold out much hope that any new laws will represent anything more than ideological pandering. 

Quite simply the Conservative Party does not draft laws based on evidence.  They legislate based on public reaction and ideology.  The Conservative Party legislates under the guise of public safety but their measures do little to make us safer.

From the Conservative perspective you either stand with the government or you stand with the sex offenders.  This mind set is not only intellectually dishonest but it is unsafe.

Will Mr. Harper listen to the evidence as it relates to sexual offenses?

A 2008 study found that New York’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law had no impact on reducing sexual re-offending by rapists, child molesters, or other sex offenders.  The study concluded that:

One of the main reasons that sex offence registries and community notification schemes do not have any impact is that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is not remarkably high. Most sex offences, it appears, are committed by those who have not previously been convicted of a sex offence. “Because registration and community notification laws were based on false assumptions regarding sex offenders and sexual offences, attention and resources are diverted from those most common types of sex offences – those committed by first-time sex offenders and those who have a pre-established relationship with the victim – to ones perpetrated by the stereotypical sex offender

A 2003 study dealing with sex offenders registration and community notification came to the conclusion:

Clearly, registries and notification systems are not without their own problems and, as such, demand careful scrutiny before being implemented. This warning gains even more salience when one recognizes that their proclaimed benefits have yet to receive empirical support. 

A 2007 study found that notification systems are in fact more likely to negatively effect overall safety and do not reduce recidivism rates:

Clearly there are negative consequences of efforts to publicize the identity of those who have been released from prison after serving time for sex offences. Given the absence of convincing data on the efficacy of these procedures in reducing recidivism, it would appear that these broad notification policies “are more likely to undermine the stability of sex offenders than to provide the sweeping protection they intend to achieve” 

Many studies have shown that communities are not made safer by the type of legislation embraced by the conservative, see:

  • During, Caleb (2006). Never Going Home: Does it Make Us Safer? Does it Make Sense? Sex Offenders, Residency Restrictions, and Reforming Risk Management Law. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 97(1), 317-363.

  • Harris, Andrew J. R.; Hanson, R. Karl (2004). Sex Offender Recidivism: A simple Question. Ottawa: Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.

  • Levenson, Jill S.; Cotter, Leo P. (2005). The Impact of Sex Offender Residence Restrictions: 1,000 Feet from Danger or One Step from Absurd?. International Journal of Offender Therapy Comparative Criminology, 49(2), 168-178.

  • Petrosino, Anthony J.; Petrosino, Carolyn (1999). The Public Safety Potential of Megan’s Law in Massachusetts: An Assessment from a Sample of Criminal Sexual Psychopaths. Crime and Delinquency, 45 (1), 140-158.

Sexual offences are reprehensible and must be dealt with seriously.  At the same time criminal laws dealing with sexual based offences should consider the available evidence. 

It may be that Canada requires new legislation to deal with emerging criminal law issues, but it is only when evidence is considered that communities can be made safer.  Sadly it seems that this is not  Mr. Harper goal.  Quite tellingly Mr. Harper said: 

“We do not understand why child predators do the heinous things they do and, in all frankness, we don’t particularly care to.” 

If Mr. Harper truly is interested in making communities safer he should care.  We should care.  Legislation should not be reactionary.  It should not be ideological.  As citizens we deserve logical and evidence based policies.

Reactionary legislation may make us feel safer, but this is a cold comfort if the protections offered are more illusory than real.