Evidence Based Policy: Conservative Party Announces New Sex Offender Legislation

September 18, 2013

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

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

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.