With the Ontario provincial election just over two weeks away, parties and their leaders continue to unveil their platforms and make promises about what they hope to accomplish if elected. One such campaign promise made last week by Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Tim Hudak, and widely reported in the media, is a proposal that Ontario create a public registry of sex offenders. While Ontario already has a sex offender registry used by police, it is the PC’s intention to put it online for the public.
The idea of a public sex offender registry is not new. The system, in one form or another, is employed by most states in the US. In Canada however, only Manitoba and Alberta currently possess public registries, and limited ones at that. If Ontario is to follow suit and create one of its own, it must do so cautiously and for maximum benefit to all: parents, the public and the sanctity of procedural justice. Doing so, unfortunately, means engaging on a level of nuance usually absent from the campaign trail, a proclivity that we encourage Mr Hudak to avoid. Luckily, as an idea still subject to discussion and political debate, Ontarians can nonetheless have a say in the promised registry’s ultimate form.
Undoubtedly the greatest difficulty when dealing with the issue of sex crimes is that it is often hard for us to think objectively and dispassionately on the subject, so appalling and disgusting are many of the crimes committed by sex offenders. Consequently, as nuance tends to invite, public and political discussions are often rife with inaccuracies and oversimplifications.
Perhaps the grossest inaccuracy that has found its way into public discourse is the notion that sex offenders are invariably incurable deviants who will reoffend if given time. This concept, while convenient for us to believe and an easy way of labelling all sex offenders, is far from the truth. In fact, numerous studies have shown that recidivism rates for sex offenders are far lower than previously thought – only 27% reoffended after 20 years, in a 2004 report – and even lower than most other crimes. That being said, a 27% recidivism rate, or any rate of recidivism for that matter, still poses an immediate danger to the public. It is against these repeat offenders that a public registry might be used most effectively in Ontario.
Yet to discern between sex offenders who are at risk to reoffend and those who are not, the crafters of an Ontario registry must bypass another misconception that plagues this issue: the belief that all sex crimes are equally depraved and that that those who commit them are inherently dangerous and deserving of equal punishment. While sex offences in Canada do include such heinous crimes as child molestation, child pornography and rape, they also include streaking, overt public displays of affection and consensual sex between minors, in some cases. All these crimes carry with them the label of sex offender – and potential inclusion on a registry – whereas only the former are crimes with a significant chance of recidivism. A primary responsibility of Mr Hudak’s government would be to properly discern between degrees of criminality when drafting any new piece of legislation.
Ultimately, The Herald believes that a reasonable and effective public registry could take shape in Ontario under the guidance of Mr Hudak and his Progressive Conservatives, provided that seriousness of the offence and likelihood of recidivism are taken into account when building the list. Any registry that comes into existence must properly balance the rights of individuals and parents to know about the dangers in their community with the rights of non-dangerous offenders to their privacy. Only by balancing the two can we hope to maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and strengthen community safety.