Speeches | May 25, 2017
Sex Offenders Registration Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2017
Victorian Parliament - 25 May 2017 - Ms KEALY - I rise today to make my contribution to the Sex Offenders Registration Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2017. As the name of the bill suggests, it primarily has to do with two elements of the Sex Offenders Registration Act 2004. They are around strengthening the powers given to Victoria Police to give them better ability to investigate and monitor registered sex offenders, and to ensure that police have all of the tools they need to detect crimes by registered sex offenders and prevent the community from further harm.
The other main element of this bill is around ensuring that we get the line in the right place, that younger offenders and young adults are not inappropriately placed on the sex offender register and therefore subjected to disproportionate and unnecessary impacts arising from automatic registration. Previous members of Parliament who made a contribution to this bill have noted the impact of this on young people who may not pose any risk to the community when they offended and are certainly not what we would deem a sexual risk to women or other individuals. They can be unfairly treated for the remainder of their lives and not realise it when they undertake activities very early on in their life. The bill will also address circumstances that have led to several young adults being placed on the sex offender register despite courts finding they were unlikely to pose a further risk to the community.
I would firstly like to discuss the elements around those protections for younger people in the community. One provision is around limited exemption from automatic registration. This bill will create an exemption for young adult offenders in limited cases and leave the question of registration to the discretion of the courts. It is a significant shift, particularly when there have been some questionable decisions made by the judiciary in the past. However, it is important that we do entrust the courts to be able to make these decisions so that young people are not unfairly put on the sex offender register.
The new exemption scheme is only intended to apply in two scenarios, as highlighted by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, where automatic registration is potentially unfair and of no useful protective purpose. Firstly, this is around offending by a young adult which occurs in the course of an otherwise consenting relationship with someone under 16 or relates to sexting, where the person depicted was under the age of 18 at the time but where the young offender does not pose an ongoing threat to the community.
We of course need to make sure there are strong safeguards in place to ensure we are not putting people at risk because of this exemption and the discretion that we provide to the courts when people are put on the sex offender register. For example:
the court must refuse the application for a registration exemption order unless satisfied that the offender would not otherwise be a registrable offender but for the fact they were sentenced for one or more specified offences, that any victims of the specified offences were at least 14 years old, and that the offender poses no risk or a low risk to the sexual safety of one or more persons or of the community.
This is an important element. It is very, very difficult within legislation to ensure that we cover every single variation of a crime or accusation which may come before the court. We do need to entrust the judiciary to have the freedom to make decisions and to put what is right against individuals, but we need to make sure that we do not let people slip through the cracks either. So this is an amendment to what has been the practice in the past.
I would like to note that this recommendation arose from a 2011 report, the review of the sex offenders registration by the Victorian Law Reform Commission. That report was requested by the then shadow Attorney‑General — the previous Attorney‑General — the member for Box Hill, who has made his opening remarks. I think he made quite an important contribution in relation to the context and applicability of this legislation but most importantly that we must get this right. We cannot see younger people unfairly prosecuted for the remainder of their lives when they pose no risk to the community. We also need to make sure that legitimate sex offenders who pose a risk to our communities, usually towards children and women, are included on the sex offender register.
The other element around the protection of younger people is the suspension of reporting obligations. There is of course some concern with this element of the bill that we may not always get this right, and it really puts a lot of pressure on the judiciary to make the right decision. The outline of this provision is that registered sex offenders are required to report various details to police such as travel plans and all contact with children. A court or the Chief Commissioner of Police may suspend these reporting obligations if they meet certain requirements, and that is when they make the decision that the offender is not a risk to the community.
This bill amends this test so the reporting obligations may be suspended where the registered offender poses no risk or a low risk to the sexual safety of the community. This addition of low risk to the test recognises that it is near impossible to be satisfied that an offender who is not incapacitated poses absolutely no risk to the sexual safety of one or more persons or of the community. So there is a change in that. We do not want a watering down of the sex offender register. We want to make sure that we do capture everybody who is a risk to the community. That is probably the main concern that the Liberal‑Nationals have in relation to this bill.
Other elements of the bill are around strengthening the powers of police so that they have a better ability to investigate and monitor registered sex offenders. This includes new search powers. There is an insertion of a new search warrant power to provide Victoria Police with an additional targeted tool to better monitor sex offenders’ compliance with their reporting obligations. There are also new powers for police to obtain fingerprints and DNA samples from all registered sex offenders.
Section 68 makes it an offence for a registered sex offender to apply for or engage in child‑related employment. As the mother of a four‑year‑old I find this quite reassuring. We do not want to have people working with our children who are not there to care for them and to look after their safety but are there because they are opportunistic and they are seeking to create harm for our younger people. There are other further miscellaneous amendments.
I would like to make mention that managing sex offenders is part of a bigger picture in terms of the protections we provide for the community. There are of course elements of serious sex offenders where there is a link to their mental health supports that they receive in the community. We know that there are challenges in accessing those types of services, particularly in rural and regional areas.
There is also a link, of course, between mental health issues and family violence. I again raise my concern that in this year’s budget there is only one support and safety hub for family violence victims allocated for the entire Department of Health and Human Services western region. This covers an area from Hopetoun in the north down to Portland, Warrnambool and Colac and takes in Stawell and St Arnaud. It is an enormous area, and it is simply unacceptable that we only have one support and safety hub available for women who are seeking to escape family violence situations. They get to the point where they realise they want to break the cycle and then have to travel hundreds of kilometres in order to get the support that they deserve.
We currently have an enormous shortage of support for women who are victims of family violence in western Victoria. We only have a family violence counsellor, who works three days a week. They cover Ararat to the border, there are 40 women on the waiting list and you have to wait five weeks to get counselling. It is unacceptable. Country women deserve the supports that they need to escape family violence in the same way that their city sisters do. Where there are fewer access points for support, it is more essential that we have better geographical representation rather than population‑based decisions.
Of course there is also a crossover between sexual offences, mental health issues and drug addiction. We have a shortfall of residential drug rehabilitation beds in western Victoria. We have seen a community rehab centre close in Ballarat in the past week. Earlier in the year we had a private drug resi‑rehab centre which was actually set up by the mother of Sarah Cafferkey, which closed due to lack of funding. We have had not one new drug resi‑rehab bed open in this state for two and a half years under this Labor government, and there is no doubt it is linked to a rising and escalating number of women being victims of sexual offences.
Back to the purpose of this bill, we do need to ensure we take all steps we need to take to protect the community from serious sex offenders. We need to restore community safety, and I urge the government to get on with doing so and to get on with protecting the community so we can feel safe again.