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Critics wary of changes to sex offender registry

Tories "trying to look tough on crime": Oliphant

PLAYING INTO FEAR. Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan announced the sex offender registry changes in Ottawa on Jun 1. Critics say the Tories are trying to look "tough on crime" and are going too far with the proposed changes.

It began on Monday morning with a cross-country media blitz. Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers in nearly every major city in the country — 13 Tories in all, including those at an announcement in Ottawa — were touting the government’s plan to “strengthen” the national sex offender registry.

While the national registry already has a series of well-documented complaints about its ineffectiveness, the new bill, tabled in the House after Question Period on Monday, goes a step further. If passed into law, Bill C-34 would see that anyone convicted of a designated sexual offence be automatically added to the national sex offender registry. Currently, a prosecutor must apply to have an offender listed on the registry, and then it’s up to the judge to decide. This bill would remove that judicial discretion. Those convicted of a designated sexual offence would also be required to provide a DNA sample for the national DNA databank.

Concerns about the bill are coming from several corners. NDP MP Bill Siksay will be keeping his eye on it.

“I’m always concerned about how we deal with sex issues and law issues,” Siksay says. “We don’t have a very good record of making reasoned decisions on that. I haven’t seen what the new proposals from the Conservatives are, but I’d be very interested to see what they are, but given the record, I’ll be concerned to see what’s there.”

“It feels like election posturing,” says gay Liberal MP Rob Oliphant. “They’re trying to look tough on crime and this is one thing they can do, whereas all the parties on the Parliamentary committee are equally concerned about it, and [the minister] is acting like he has a monopoly on concern about this issue.”

Oliphant, who is a member of the Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee, says that the sex offender registry has recently been studied by the committee.

“We’ve just finished our study but haven’t released our report yet,” says Oliphant. “The minister is pre-empting our study, where we listened to dozens of witnesses and spent Parliamentary time and money, and now he’s jumping to a conclusion before we’ve issued our report.”

Oliphant expects to have the report — including his minority comments on the dangers of blanket provisions — published within two weeks.

At first glance, both the Liberals and NDP sound like they will support the bill, though there are some reservations.

“We’ve seen some of the abuse that happens in the United States where names get put on the list and the general pubic has access to that list,” says NDP justice critic Joe Comartin. “There’s no intention, in my understanding, for them to do that.”

The bill lists about 20 Criminal Code offences for which automatic inclusion in the registry will apply. These offences include sexual assault, luring a child by means of a computer, sexual exploitation or interference, exposure, and obtaining prostitution of a person under the age of 18.

Those on the registry are forced to report their location to the police and to the authorities of any foreign country they visit, including reporting the name of their employer and any organizations they volunteer with.

There are concerns that by automatically registering all offenders, that some less serious offences may be treated the same as more vicious crimes.

“There’s less serious offences that you would not [register],” says Comartin. And if there are plans to put young people on the registry, he says he “would have serious problems with that.”

Liberal justice critic Dominic Leblanc says that he wants to ensure that Charter rights are respected in the bill, and he too has reservations — especially if the bill intends to treat all sexual offences equally.

“Yes, of course that concerns me,” Leblanc says. “That’s why we’ll want to understand exactly what the legislation means in terms of every sex offence, every conviction being included in the registry.”

With the increasing criminalization of HIV in Canada, the HIV/AIDS Legal Network is also watching closely.

“The obvious concern is that it might mean those who are convicted of aggravated sexual assault for not revealing their HIV status will automatically be added to the sex offender registry,” says senior policy analyst Alison Symington.

“Everything we do that makes non-disclosure more serious, be it more serious charges, longer sentences, or media coverage, declaring that people are ‘sex offenders’ — which automatically in people’s minds makes you think predators, paedophiles and rapists,” says Symington. “It has the potential of just adding one more layer, one more ingredient to all of those factors that are increasing stigma and discrimination, and are leading to misinformation and people avoiding services.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association also has concerns about the DNA databank provisions, but sees possible greater danger in the “preventative” aspects of the bill.

“The example that was given was someone acting suspiciously around a schoolyard might be enough to trigger police to use the information in the database,” says executive director David Eby. “That sort of preventative use is of potential concern to us because when you’re talking about suspicious activity, then you start talking about people who appear to be homeless, or appear to be drug users, or you get into issues of racial or sexual profiling, and we’re very cautious about the term ‘suspicious activity.'”