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Megan’s Law in Australia

John Lewthwaite is a man who had been charged and convicted for the murder of five-year-old Nicole Hann in 1974. Lewthwaite, who was nineteen at the time, had fantasised about abducting and raping Nicole’s then nine-year-old brother. Young Nicole awoke one afternoon as Lewthwaite broke into her home. He stabbed her seventeen times. Lewthwaite was released back into the community after serving twenty-five years of his prison sentence. The community he took residence in was fearful and outraged; their main concern was for the safety of their children.

Good morning/afternoon Miss Wiggins and girls. Ours is an increasingly dangerous society with increases in both the malevolency and the rate of crime. Part of the problem lies in abuse of our advancing technology and media inducing increase in tolerance of popular-cultural interests such as violent movies, music, video games influencing today’s youths to commit crimes we have never imagined. This generation is in need of limits and boundaries, legal guidelines that enable individuals to achieve social cohesion. We are a generation that lives in constant fear. The rate of child sex crimes is on the rise. Parents of young children now live in fear that their child may also fall a victim to sexual crime. In 1993 to 1994, there were 4392 children who were believed to have been involved in substantiated cases of child sex abuse whereby substantiated means there is reasonable cause to believe that the child has been or is being abused. One Australian study in 1988 estimated that twenty-eight percent of girls and nine percent of boys had been involved in some form of sexual abuse in Australia. Child abuse includes crimes such as child sexual assault, child sexual victimisation, child exploitation, child sexual misuse, child molestation, child sexual maltreatment and child rape. All of which are criminal offences listed under the Criminal Code of Queensland. These crimes pose serious threat to our society. Not only are children amongst the most vulnerable of groups in the community, they are also the next generation of adults. Statistics show that in most cases, convicted paedophiles were found likely to have been victims of sex crimes as children. Therefore more must be done now to break this vicious cycle of immorality.

This afternoon, in light of time constraints I will be focusing on one particular area of law related to child sex crimes that is in need of reform; the treatment of “rehabilitated” or “paroled” child sex criminals in relation to Megan’s law in the US and whether or not such legislation is appropriate for the Australian society.

In the US, a law was introduced after seven-year-old Megan Kanka was kidnapped, raped and murdered by her neighbour, a twice convicted sex offender who had committed a similar crime only a few months before. The term Megan’s Law has become an umbrella term laws which authorize the release to the public of identifying information about convicted sex-offenders. Such laws do not exist under current legislation in Australia. However since the release on parole of John Lewthwaite (mentioned earlier) there have been increasing calls for a Megan’s Law to be introduced. However, civil libertarians argue against such laws in the Australian as it would offend the civil rights of those who are rightful members of society.

Child sex criminals are regarded as dangerous members of society due to the heinous nature of their crimes and the statistical likelihood of criminal replications. Research shows that the rate off re-offence is approximately 52%. As the child grows older, the paedophile ceases to be attracted and seeks a younger replacement. Thus there is an in-built tendency to commit offences against a large number of victims. Despite the draw backs to civil liberties, legislation mirroring Megan’s Law needs to be introduced in Australia. There are four main arguments that illustrate this need. Firstly, many believe people have a right to know of dangers that lurk within their local community especially when the safety of young children is at stake. Current legislation does not permit this to happen. Secondly, many argue the publicizing of the information of paedophiles will let the paroled ex-criminals knowing he or she is being monitored hence this would deter the offender from re-committing crimes of this nature. Thirdly Megan’s Law will bring comfort to victims, knowing that their abuser is being monitored. Lastly, there is currently no legislation protecting the ex-criminals from vigilantes acts, Megan’s Law, if implemented will account for these repercussions.

On the other hand, without strict privacy laws a direct implementation of America’s Megan’s Law could cause detrimental backlashes to occur. These can also be summed up in three main points. Firstly, due to the inconsistency of Megan’s Law with society’s goal of protecting individual liberties, the civil rights will be taken away from those who have served their punishment. This argument boils down to whether or not those convicted of a child sex crime deserve the same rights as other members of the community. Secondly the likelihood of vigilante mentality towards offenders is very high, as members of the outraged communities may decide to take the law into their own hands. Thirdly, some argue that the cost of such schemes which may be better used in prevention and/or rehabilitation programs.

It can be seen that a direct implementation of America’s Megan’s law would have disastrous impacts in the Queensland, or Australian Society. However, given the facts and figures of this serious predicament, it is obvious that more legislation needs to be introduced to accommodate or adequate protection of our children. Therefore this afternoon I wish to suggest four main proposals as a model for legislation that I believe to be practical responses to address both the rising child sex crime rates and the disadvantages of Megan’s law in the US. Firstly, there is a need to monitor the activities of child sex offenders in the community by the police. This would be most effectively done by an establishment of a national register, as proposed by state and territory police ministers in July this year but is yet to be approved. But the release of the offender’s details into the wide community requires more careful consideration. Secondly, a separate unit within the police force could be established to administer an Australian version of Megan’s law. This group could be delegated power to release information into the public, but only after scrutinizing the repercussions. This group will also be responsible for the safety of the convicted criminal and see that vigilante acts will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Thirdly, more counselling must be made mandatory for crimes of this nature, both in jail and out on parole. Larger funding from the government needs to be set aside for this. Lastly, current legislation only requires those on parole to report within 48 hours of change of residence, which is clearly inadequate. Regular reports to the police need to be made by all those on parole, perhaps every fortnight.

There are three avenues of law reform that would be effective in seeing these proposals being added to current legislation. These are the use of pressure group, media and petitions. Pressure groups are association of persons united by common goals, whose intention is to persuade politicians into legislating in their favour. Australian Parents for Megan’s Law is a single issue group that lobbies to implement Megan’s Law in Australia. Pressure groups often encounter difficulties if they are considered as outsider groups, pushing for narrow-minded and self-seeking ideals and are not willing to entertain other points of view. However pressure groups can be effective participants in the democratic process because they speak with a unified voice about an issue of concern and they utilise other avenues to push for the changes they wish to see put in place such as the media. Print, radio and television are powerful vehicles to voice the concerns of those tho believe there is a need for Megan’s law in Australia. The only drawback is the government is not legally obligated to listen to the media. However, the media remains a powerful source of political motivation as they can direct the reputation of the government. The collection of petitions is another avenue of law reform. This involves the collection of signatures of people who feel strongly enough to support a particular issue, and presenting them to the parliament. However, a great difficulty faced by petitioners is the validity of their petition. Factors that hinder the credibility include the authenticity of the names and the numbers required for a petition to be noteworthy in parliament is quite large.

Reliable sources claim that Lewthwaite had undergone hundreds of hours of counselling and psychological assessment prior to his release. However, due to the statistical likelihood of re-offence and the lack of legislation governing this nature of his crime, we can all only hope that this now 44-year-old man is no longer the same sex-obsessed, paedophilic 19-year-old he once was.
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