A false sense of security and an illusion of public safety?

May 23, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 12, 2016 08:02 pm IST

Asha Bajpai

Asha Bajpai

Recently, many expressed their anger and resentment towards a sex offender and voiced outrage for a juvenile justice system that would release such a person after ‘only three years’ in a correction home. Very few were willing to give the offender a chance, or accept him in their neighbourhood. People hate and despise such sexual offenders and think they should be ‘locked up for life’. Other criminals also consider them too abominable to associate with; remember the reported assault of an accused in the Nirbhaya case in prison by fellow prisoners. The Indian government has started work on putting together a register of convicted sex offenders that will also be published. Reportedly, guidelines are being prepared in consultation with various ministries. The register will include a wide range of details about convicted sex offenders, including names, addresses, telephone numbers and their current photographs. The crimes the register would cover range from stalking and voyeurism to rape and aggravated sexual assault. Child offenders are also proposed to be included in this register. According to the Government: “It will instill fear in the minds of repeat sexual offenders and the public would benefit from it.”

In the times we are living in, it is politically correct to take a harsh stand on the matter of sexual offenders in the interest of ‘public safety’, and there is a presumption that they cannot be reformed and are likely to re-offend. Remember how the Juvenile Justice Act 2016, lowering the age of children in conflict with law was passed though it violated the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court’s judgments, international laws, views of experts and scientific brain studies. Such knee-jerk reactions may possibly succeed in providing a sense of false security or an illusion of public safety, but only initially.

Following a number of highly publicised violent crimes, all states in the US passed various laws to decrease recidivism and promote public safety. But the resulting stigmatisation of sex offenders resulted in disruption of their relationships, loss of or difficulties in finding jobs, difficulties finding housing, and decreased psychological well-being, all factors that could increase their risk of recidivism.

There are some studies that laws denying them a variety of employment, social and educational opportunities may actually increase re-offending. The sex offender label may prevent these individuals from starting a new life and making new acquaintances, with the result that it may be extremely difficult for them to discard their criminal patterns.

Taking into account the provisions of the current Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, a 14 year-old child who may have engaged in ‘sexual experimentation’ with a younger child will also be considered a sex offender and included in the register. Their opportunities for further schooling, employment will be blocked and they may develop a sense of hopelessness. Putting their names on a public registry inhibits them from reintegrating into the society.

Reviews in some states in the US have shown that it is not clear whether or not the huge costs of registration outweigh the benefits. It is really important that these children get proper treatment, intervention, and their needs are addressed so they don’t re-offend. And, I think that is far more effective than a registry.

We need preventive programmes within communities, schools, homes and families so that children in need of care and protection are prevented from turning into children in conflict with law.

We need more programs for the protection of witnesses and victims and survivors of sexual assault.

Dr. Bajpai is a professor of law and former Dean, School of Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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