Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Harmful registries

I don't know what's all planned for this registry. If it's restricted to violent or dangerous offenders, with access restricted to checks by employers for positions involving access to children, then it could do some good. Unfortunately, these things do often wind up overreaching. Here's Reason Magazine from a couple of years ago:
“Without the registry,” says Shirley Turner, “he would still be alive today.” She is referring, in a 2006 interview with Human Rights Watch, to her 24-year-old son, William Elliot. He was murdered that year by a pedophile-hunting Canadian gunman who found his name and address in Maine’s online database of sex offenders. Elliot’s crime: When he was 19, he had sex with his girlfriend, who was three weeks shy of 16, the age of consent in Maine.
The panic that followed Megan Kanka’s murder produced an alarm system that often fails to distinguish between dangerous predators like Timmendequas, who had a record of assaulting little girls, and nonviolent lawbreakers like Elliot, who posed no discernible threat to the general public. They are all mixed together in the online registries of sex offenders that every state is required to maintain as a condition of receiving federal law enforcement funding—a mandate imposed by another Megan’s Law, enacted by Congress in 1996.
American rules typically bundle completely nonviolent, no-risk offenders with the most violent rapists. They're restricted in many states from living near schools or parks or daycares. Some neighbourhoods consequently built tiny parks with the specific purpose of making it illegal for an offender to move in nearby. Consequently, there is literally almost nowhere that sex offenders can live in some places:
Registration only rarely leads to murder, but it routinely ruins relationships, triggers ostracism and harassment, and impedes education and employment. These burdens are compounded by state and local laws that ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks, day care centers, and other locations where children congregate. Such restrictions, which often apply even if an offender’s crime had nothing to do with children, can be so extensive that entire cities are effectively off limits. In Miami local residence restrictions have given rise to a colony of more than 70 sex offenders who live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge that crosses Biscayne Bay. 
And the registry can be forever:
A man who was convicted of statutory rape when he was 16 for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend told Human Rights Watch: “We were in love. And now we are married. So it’s like I am on the registry for having premarital sex. Does having premarital sex make me a danger to society? My wife doesn’t think so.” 
I hope that the Kiwi policymakers looking at this stuff will design it to avoid the kinds of problems evident in the US. Restrict it to violent or otherwise risky offenders, and restrict access to it.


  1. Serious question: how much do you worry these days (ie, in the "digital age") that, even if something like this might be good if you could adequately restrict it, the fact that data seems to squirm out all the time means the risks outweigh any benefit?

    Maybe if it were to be restricted to the most serious offenders it would pass that test.

  2. Well worth worrying about. But what does a registry achieve that can't already be achieved by a criminal background check?

  3. Gee, can't say i'm particularly happy with the public political atmosphere at the moment. so much moral panic over both this and the synthetics... :(

  4. The synthetics one has been especially disappointing, Lisa. It was a regulatory regime of which we were rightly proud, and could have led to greater things a couple years down the track. Then Labour had to go and jump up and down about it, forcing National away.

  5. This whole post makes me sad. It very much sums up my sad opinion of the USA, and it's "who allowed this travesty to happen, and what must be done (for good or bad) so this never happens again"

    And then you have a 101 crazy rules, that ruin lives, save nobody, and instill more fear. But action was taken, or more to the point the next some something "bad" thre is a paper trail show those in power "did all they could in there power", which means they get more power given to them, because we must be "safe".

  6. Sadly, it seems background checks aren't sexy on a bumper sticker.

  7. It reminds me of the story in Britain where some functionally illiterate mob vandalised the home of a paediatrician, simply because it sounded like the word 'paedophile'.