INDIA: The deterrent fallacy of Sex Offender Registries 

With incidents of sexual assault and rape being reported more widely across India, there have been increasing calls for the establishment of a sexual offender registry in the country. The gangrape and murder of a young girl in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir in January 2018, intensified these calls, along with the demand for death penalty for child sexual assault. The Justice Verma Committee, which was formed after the 2012 gangrape and murder case of Jyoti Pandey case in Delhi, did not suggest the introduction of such a registry. However, the Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, has repeatedly demanded for its operation in India. In 2017, Kerala’s Governor announced to the new Budget session that the southern state would start work on a sex offender registry. It was to be the first of its kind in India, containing identification details of the offenders and would accessible in the public domain.

The demands have grown stronger post Kathua and the Government of India has also responded. The Cabinet has passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance of 2018 and has said that the National Crime Records Bureau will maintain a national database of sexual offenders. Through a press release in late May 2018, the Women’s Safety Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) will maintain a database and profile of sexual offenders at the national level and share it with the States/UTs on regular basis. This data will be used by the police for verification and would form a part of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems programme. This is to facilitate faster communication amongst police stations across the country.

The National Crime Records Bureau has already called for tenders to develop the database. The ‘Request for Proposal’ put out by the Ministry of Home Affairs states that the registry would include those below the age of 18 as well, with two different lists of juvenile offenders and adult offenders.

A sex offender registry is a database containing the names of convicted sex offenders. They are registered, usually, along with their conviction and release dates, their address, date of birth, fingerprints, DNA sample, and possibly even their Aadhaar number. Such registries already exist in countries such as South Africa, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and most notably, in the United States of America – where the sex offender registry is publicly available – while in other countries, it is usually only accessible by enforcement agencies.

The goals of a sexual offender registry are to keep such behaviour in check by monitoring known offenders and tracking them in order to reduce instances of recidivism. It is expected to be a great tool for law enforcement agencies and thought to provide a sense of security for communities to better protect their children.

But does it really work? A 2014 study conducted by Professor Jillian B. Carr of Purdue University found that being on the registry had no effect on recidivism. There are several other studies from the United States, which also conclude the same i.e. it does not reduce sex crimes. J.J Prescott and J.E Rockoff, in their 2010 study, noted that these registries are more likely to harden criminals and make such behaviour more attractive since they ‘are already registered sex offenders living under a notification regime.’

Rehabilitation must be the answer for a first-time offender, rather than branding him as one that cannot reform. The registration laws must not make it necessary for those convicted of a lesser crime to be put on the same platform as those perpetrators of heinous crimes. There must be a difference between high and medium risk offenders. There is also a threat of arbitrary discrimination against the lower and poorer sections of the society, weaker castes and illiterate persons thus resulting in the registries being filled up by them.

If such databases are made accessible to the public at large, there is the obvious fear that it might lead to vigilante attacks. Though done with the intention to bring sexual offenders to justice and to make the society safer, these registries or databases can be severely misused. Access to registries should be limited to public safety, otherwise, there can be instances of harassment and violence against the registrants. It will allow for people to take the law into their own hands in a form of vengeance. Such registries also curb the scope of reformation of these criminals as even after they have served their due and are placed back into the society, they will be stigmatised. With information available publicly, it will be next to impossible for them to find housing or even employment. Can the State ensure their livelihood? With the possible linking of Aadhaar to the registry, how will the state prevent any attacks on the offender once he has been released from jail? Sensitive information about the offender will cause greater chaos in the society. Every crime has a prescribed punishment, would this not allow for further punishment of the persons registered?

A public registry would only make the offender go back to a life of crime as he would have no incentive to reform. Though it is not known whether the databases in India would be made accessible to the public or not, but even if not made accessible, it could still be prone to data breaches. It should be considered if the Government is able to ward off such hacking of the security systems which protect these registries, otherwise it is invaluable data in the form of people’s identities that is at stake. It must be remembered that offenders have a right to privacy.

The root cause of the problem must be addressed. Our broken criminal justice system cannot ensure that a sex offender registry will be foolproof and contain authentic data. Further, our system of punishment must consciously move towards rehabilitation and reformation, rather than increasing punitive costs, moving towards retribution. Gender-sensitive education and awareness of accused and offenders, along with that of the actors in the criminal justice system is crucial.. The Government of India should better enforce the existing laws and ensure that the police function more efficiently and effectively to tack gender-based violence and sexual offences. In the dysfunctional criminal justice framework that is India right now, the AHRC believes that implementation of sex offender registries will lead to disastrous consequences and could worsen the issue of sexual violence in India. A reactionary move, the Indian state must rethink its intention to make sex offender registries a reality for the country and must instead focus on the root causes of the issue.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-030-2018
Countries : India,
Issues : Administration of justice, Sexual violence, Violence against women, Women's rights,