VLRC reviews registration of sex offenders

Failure by Victoria Police to tell the Child Protection division of the Department of Human Services that many registered sex offenders were living with or had unsupervised contact with children has led to a review.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) is reviewing the legislation governing the Sex Offenders Register and the use of information about registered sex offenders for law enforcement and child protection.

The Sex Offenders Register was established by the Sex Offenders Registration Act 2004 (Vic) and is administered by the Chief Commissioner of Police. Under the Act, inclusion in the register is a mandatory consequence of an adult being convicted of and sentenced for sexual offences involving children.

Juvenile offenders and adults who commit sexual offences involving other adults are not automatically included in the register. However, the sentencing court has a discretionary power to order them to comply with the reporting obligations set out in the Act if it is satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that they pose a risk to the sexual safety of one or more people or the community.

Reporting obligations start once a registered sex offender is released into the community. An offender must report various details to Victoria Police, including their address, internet details and the names and ages of any children with whom they live or regularly have unsupervised contact. The offender must continue to report these details to the police annually and immediately after any change. An offender’s reporting period is determined by the type and number of offences committed. For adult offenders it is eight years, 15 years, or life. Reporting periods for offenders who were children at the time of the offence are half that which would apply to an adult, with a maximum of seven and a half years.

As of 1 June 2011, 3933 people had been registered as sex offenders in Victoria since the Act commenced. Of these, 2659 offenders were living in the community and had to report regularly to Victoria Police. The remainder were in custody, deceased, had moved interstate or overseas or were no longer required to report for other reasons, such as incapacity. The Director of Police Integrity, who has a role in monitoring the Chief Commissioner’s compliance with the Act, has estimated that 20,000 offenders will be registered within the first 30 years of the scheme.

The reference to the VLRC arises from the Victorian Ombudsman’s report concerning the failure by Victoria Police to inform the Child Protection division of the Department of Human Services that many registered sex offenders were living with or had unsupervised contact with children.1

The report, which was tabled in Parliament in February 2011, referred to concerns held by senior office-holders about the limitations of the Sex Offenders Registration Act 2004 (Vic). The Ombudsman concluded that “the current legislative arrangements require review to ensure the obligations on both registered sex offenders and the registry are balanced with the need to protect children from harm”.2

The Commission has engaged former Supreme Court Justice and Director of Public Prosecutions John Coldrey QC as a consultant for the reference. In June, the VLRC released an Information Paper describing the registration scheme, posing questions and inviting submissions. The final report to the Attorney-General is due by 4 November.

The purpose of the review is to ensure that the legislative arrangements for the collection and use of information about registered sex offenders enable law enforcement and child protection agencies to assess the risk of registered sex offenders reoffending, prevent further offences and protect children from harm.

A recurring observation by experts in sex offender management and child protection is the volume of information collected by the use of registration schemes. There is concern that mandatory registration is a blunt instrument for dealing with the risk that a sex offender will reoffend. Contrary to common assumptions, many sex offenders are unlikely to reoffend, and monitoring the activities of such a broad group of people may divert attention and resources from preventing higher-risk individual offenders from reoffending.

Another difficulty is the apparent lack of clear legislative authority for the Chief Commissioner to share information held in the register with the Department of Human Services or other public bodies for child protection.

The VLRC is also considering the interaction of Victoria’s registration scheme with other legislation relevant to the post-sentence management of sex offenders and the protection of children, including the Serious Sex Offenders (Detention and Supervision) Act 2009, the Working with Children Act 2005 and the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. Although each contributes to a suite of legislative safeguards and controls, they do not appear to have been designed as part of an integrated response to child sex offending.

The terms of reference and the information paper are available at http://www.lawreform.vic.gov.au.

This article was produced by the Commission and appeared in the August 2011 issue of the Law Institute Journal.

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