Canada's sex offender legislation: 'tough on crime', short on smarts!

Victim Rights


Proponents of harsher sex offender laws say their first priority is protecting the rights of victims. They assume that by simply utilizing catchphrases such as ‘protecting a child’ or ‘keeping society safe’ that they will encounter no resistance to whatever changes they may propose and in doing this they  advance their  political agenda. To a certain extent such procedures have been successful- few public officials who have supported the laws have done so based on a careful assessment of the nature of sex crimes and the best way to prevent sexual violence. While it is imperative to place the safety needs of victims and the community at the forefront of our sex offender management strategies we owe the public much more than continuing to rely on a policies that has been proven as accomplishing little else but the creation of a false sense of security.

Protecting the community, safeguarding the rights of victims and limiting unnecessary harm to former offenders are not mutually incompatible goals. To the contrary, one enhances and reinforces the other. Minnesota provides a great example as to how this synergy may be accomplished. There, state legislators and government officials, in consultation with child safety and women’s rights advocates, have constructed carefully tailored evidence-based laws that aim to prevent sexual violence by safely integrating former sex offenders into the community, restricting their rights only to the extent necessary to achieve that goal. Before they are released from prison, convicted sex offenders in Minnesota are assessed by a panel of experts, who determine whether an individual should be subject to registration, and if so for how long. The panel has the authority to periodically reassess the convicted sex offender’s level of dangerousness and adjust his or her registration accordingly. Community notification is on a need-to-know basis. As the Minnesota community notification law states, “The extent of the information disclosed and the community to whom disclosure is made must be related to the level of danger posed by the offender, to the offender’s pattern of offending behavior, and to the need of community members for information to enhance their individual and collective safety.”

The public has been misled about the ability of offenders to learn control. That's why many people see extreme and punitive measures as the only option for offenders. But control is quite possible: many offenders can find ways to refrain from at-risk thoughts and situations, thus protecting potential victims. By reliving their own distress in therapy and reconnecting with their feelings, they can perceive the damage to victims. In this manner, they can learn "victim empathy"—a vital measure. Offenders are also taught "victim respect" as well as "thought-stoppage," ways to identify situations that can act as triggers, and ways to create a relapse-prevention plan. It's made clear in therapy that their offenses are extremely wrong, but if they are treated as humans—not monsters—their self-esteem can improve, and better control can be achieved.  It is important then, to understand that community safety and alleviation of client distress are goals that can be mutually rewarding for offender patients and society. It is also important to offer treatment to the offender for the sake of society generally and for those who have been victims.

The Conservative government appears to believe that victims of crime seek only revenge and are thus willing to accept any legislation which furthers that goal. Most victims of sexual abuse however want justice, in that their perpetrator receives the sentences appropriate to the crimes they have committed and almost all victims however, want sex offenders to get help so they will not continue to victimize others. Integration within the larger community, with a focus on participation in treatment and a goal of acknowledging one's offense and taking responsibility for it, validates the victim and reinforces the fact that the responsibility for the offending behavior lies strictly with the offender. Current legislation threatens the success of reintegration and offender treatment by introducing factors which will likely increase offender recidivism, while offering little in the way of public safety.