Watch out

A registry of sex offenders will help law enforcers limit a fast-growing social problem, but it must not discourage reform.

Published: September 22, 2018 3:33:38 am

The Union Home Ministry has launched a National Registry of Sexual Offenders, which should be useful in limiting the rampant growth of sex crimes, including those against children. India is the ninth country to build such a database, and it has chosen to follow the majority in restricting access to law enforcement agencies. Only the US allows public access to its database, and this is controversial. It is argued that public stigmatisation imposes excessive restrictions on housing choices, the freedom of movement and social life, which disincentivises offenders who wish to reform and thereby increase repeat offences. India’s database, which includes names, addresses, photographs, fingerprints, DNA samples and government ID, will be useful for tracking offenders after they have served their sentence, and would reduce repeat offences.

An urgent need for such a system has been felt over the last decade, when the incidence of rape and other crimes against women has increased sharply. The National Crime Records Bureau, which will administer the registry, has recorded a 12 per cent rise in the number of rapes in its latest data, for 2015-16. Crimes against children have assumed serious proportions, and the government has responded with the Criminal Law Ordinance of 2018, which awards the death penalty for those convicted of raping children below the age of 12. In addition, the violence associated with sexual offences, as seen in the gangrapes in Kathua and Delhi, have assumed monstrous proportions.

The database is graded, retaining data on “low danger” offenders for 15 years, those offering “moderate danger” for 25 years, and habitual offenders for their lifetime. However, it remains to be seen how effectively threat perception is evaluated in practice. It has been argued in the US and UK that a perception based on the heinousness of the last offence is of little value, and periodic psychiatric evaluation, though expensive and difficult, may prove to be much more effective. Fifteen or 25 years after the last conviction, the offender could be a completely changed person. Besides, there is an argument for emulating the Canadian National Sex Offender Registry, which offers an opt-out option — after paying the debt to society, offenders can be delisted if they convince a judge that they no longer present a threat. The Indian registry of 4.4 lakh names is an excellent beginning. But it will be honed in service, to serve as an efficient tracker that does not disincentivise reform.

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