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Does the Sex Offender Registry Offend Justice?

May 4, 2009

mcgilldaily.com : Does the Sex Offender Registry Offend Justice?

Our society is full of advocates: advocates for the poor, advocates for the homeless, advocates for minorities. But where are the advocates for the sex offenders?

That’s a question that Dustin Shiers, a 20-year-old Saskatoon resident, may be asking himself right now. He was sentenced to a year in prison after downloading and sharing child pornography, and he is now waiting for a decision on whether his name will be added to a registry for sex offenders. Shiers was evaluated by a psychologist and scored very low on various intellectual tests, which is one factor that might convince the judge to leave him off the registry. But I’d like to take a slightly different approach.

Last summer, at a philosophy conference, I attended a lecture on this issue by University of Alabama psychology professor Christopher Robinson. Among other things, he argued that the sex offender registry represents an arbitrary, double punishment of sex criminals and is applicable to too many offenses. For example, depending on the area, “sex offenders” can also include those guilty of streaking, burglary, surveillance, and kidnapping. Also, the fact that we register sex offenders but not, say, murderers, doesn’t make much sense. It might be explained by the strange taboo in society regarding sex, but that doesn’t make it any less irrational.

The issue of whether a certain person should be placed on a sex offender registry or whether such a registry should exist at all is difficult because it involves a unique type of punishment. While we may agree that rapists, who deprive their victims of freedom of choice, merit jail time – also a temporary deprival of freedom – how do we decide whether their names should be put on a list for the public to see?

As I see it, the sex offender registry is both excessive and not particularly useful. Especially in the case of those who have not committed sexual assault but consume child pornography – repulsive as it may be – the label “sex offender” is not an appropriate description; it suggests someone who has committed rape or assault, not someone like Dustin Shiers, who “ha[s] never been aggressive or sexual in any of his personal relationships.” To put him on a list for 20 years is disproportionate to his crime. While it could be argued that he is supporting the industry – keeping child porn sites alive by upping their page views – this link seems too indirect to hold him responsible for the pornography itself. Even if he never visited a single child porn site, the industry would still survive.

On the practical side, his trial and conviction have already been reported in the news. And who actually looks at these lists? (I did for the first time this morning, and found a bunch of shady-looking pictures from a shady-looking town near my home in New Jersey.) In the case of young children, you would hope that parents would not leave them with adults they do not know very well. And in the case of teenagers, it is unlikely that a 15-year-old is going to pull up the National Sex Offender Registry to make sure his cool new 20-year-old friend isn’t into child porn.

A registry for rapists and those who have committed violent crimes may be justified, but I haven’t taken a stand on that issue here. But in the case of other crimes, we should ditch the list – it’s an unwarranted punishment that serves little purpose.

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