From Suffering of Offenders, Society Gains Little

Oct 24 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

The Ministry of Women, Children & Youth is, as it should be, worried about the prevalence of sex offences. It is with this view that it plans to introduce a national sex offender registry and notification as a supplement to the sentences served by convicted persons.

The purposes of such a registry would be to act as a deterrent, especially by branding people with the shame of what they have done for the rest of their lives. It also allows the authorities to keep watch over them with greater efficiency. A further advantage the registry could provide is that it allows the public to identify sex offenders and take the necessary precautions.

Indeed, with the mainstream, there are few crimes that coax moral outrage as much as sex offences. This is understandable. Sex offences, especially directed at minors, are unfathomably terrible acts of crime. Our tolerance level for this is very low, and that is with reason. Period.

In Ethiopia, the criminal law does not look lightly upon such crimes – in fact, there are calls for harsher punishments whenever there is a highly publicised case of sex offense. Rape is prosecutable up to 20 years, while offence against minors that causes “grave bodily or mental injury to or death of the victim” is punishable by life imprisonment.

It is far beyond many of us to question the justifiability of such punishment. In most cases, we believe that these people deserve what is coming to them. They have committed a crime, and they should be locked away. This may not help them get rehabilitated, but at least it keeps them away from society.

But it remains incumbent upon us to ask whether a national sex offender registry and notification, which would follow a person wherever they go whatever the likelihood that they might have been rehabilitated, will have positive net effects.

This is not an easy question to answer, but we can start with whether sex offenders deserve society’s sympathy. There are usually two types of criminals. The first type is born with a personality disorder that results in lower levels of empathy and remorse. For such individuals, several countries have what is termed an insanity defence. Any reasonable individual should be on board with the idea that such persons cannot be held responsible for the actions they commit and should indeed be given the appropriate care until they are deemed to no longer serve a threat to themselves or others. There should not be an argument here.

Usually, the criminals that we reserve our contempt for are the individuals that have turned to a life of crime despite having the capacity to tell between what society deems to be right or wrong. But there is a problem here as well. Crime, including sex offences, often correlate with socioeconomic status. Also, antisocial behaviour and crime are profoundly associated with adults that themselves were abused as children. Too many studies have demonstrated this.

No doubt, not every sex offender has some sort of personality disorder or led a harsh childhood. There are outliers. But it should be obvious that there is a need to consider with nuance the thin – sometimes thick – line that separates criminals (who may deserve our sympathy) to their crime (which remains heinous).

But, say, maybe these people do not in fact deserve our sympathy. Let us say that they are bad for us and should be either locked away, kept on the margins of society or shamed for the crime they have committed for the rest of their lives. Let us also assume that our justice system works perfectly – which it obviously does not – and that everyone identified as a sex offender was not wrongfully convicted.

What separating the crime from the criminal does is that it makes evident that offences are at least in part conditioned by socioeconomic circumstances. Without addressing the inequalities created by the socioeconomic systems we have built, then harsher punishment is an ineffective means of lowering crime. This is evident from the fact that countries that have the severest penalties – such as capital punishment – do not necessarily have lower offences committed. A better indicator of the prevalence of offences is actually socioeconomic inequality.

Do public sex offender registries – in a way, another form of severe punishment - then work to deter such crimes?

Recidivism with sex offenders is high, thus the obvious and necessary need to improve supervision over such persons. In this light, as long as it is only made use of by the authorities, a sex offender registry is justifiable. The problem is that making the registry public is not guaranteed to work. While physical assault, property damage, harassment, job loss and loss of housing are reported by convicted offenders as a result of being included in such a list, it is not proven to deter them from committing crimes again.

“Research to date has been mixed in terms of the impact of SORN [sex offender, registration and notification programmes] on the rates of sex crimes in an implementing jurisdiction, with several studies showing no change in the rate based on SORN, while other studies have demonstrated a decrease in the rate,” stated a 2015 research brief by the US Department of Justice. “In addition, SORN was studied for its impact on the rates of sexual recidivism for registered sex offenders, with the majority of studies demonstrating no impact.”

Perhaps this was the most telling part of the report:

“While it is difficult to track national trends over time, there is little question that the number of sex offenders under correctional supervision in the community has increased substantially over the past 20 years.”

Clearly, public registries have not worked. At best, the consensus is that there is no demonstrable impact gained from enforcing harsher measures against offenders in the form of public national registries and notifications.

So why do such registries exist then? In fact, why does the myth of harsh penalties – in many ways a form of revenge taken on behalf of the public by the government – as a deterrent to crime persist? Why are we eager to employ the state’s institutions and resources to punish criminals -- a majority of which are often from low-income households -- without sparing a thought for the socioeconomic conditions that led them down such a rabbit hole?

It is about how lazy we are as a society, about how we take the path of least resistance – punishment – as an antidote to acts that offend our sense of moral justice. It is the clearest sign of our moral and rational defeatism that we accept what is intuitive as fact.

Remember, we live in a society that remains by and large proud of the paternalistic system it has built and kneels at the altar of hyper-masculinity through the stories it celebrates. It is nothing less than rich for this same society to attempt to address its problems by putting in place harsher laws while at the same time doing the bare minimum to embrace progressivism.

As Dostoyevsky told us, we do not get judged as a society by how well we treat our Haile Selassies and Tedros Adhanoms but by those we have put on the social margins.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 24,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1069]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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