A sex offender registry refers to a government database containing information on convicted sex offenders. In India, this database is maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and contains information such as the name, residential address, Aadhaar number, fingerprints and even DNA samples of the offenders.
The introduction of the sex offender registry has been received well and has been touted as a public safety measure.
These registries are propositioned as mechanisms that will not only aid the law enforcement agencies to keep track of known offenders, but also help investigate offences, suspected to having been committed by a former offender.
However, a close look at this registry reveals that the potential of these registries may largely be misplaced – and is not the quick-fix it promises to be.
No Legislative Basis for the Registry
At present, the registry does not have any legislative basis and is an executive action. Consequently, the operational mechanics of this registry remains largely unclear.
In other countries that have a similar registry, the offenders on the registry are expected to check in with law enforcement from time to time, and intimate them if they change jobs or residences or even cross state lines.
In India however, there is no such requirement. The NCRB unilaterally maintains the list with relevant information and it is unclear how the NCRB plans to keep the information updated and keep tabs on the activities of more than 4 lakh offenders currently on the registry.
It also remains unclear what level of scrutiny and interference these former offenders will be expected to face as a result of being on the registry.
The name of a sex offender enters the register upon the conviction of the said offender. If the offender chooses to appeal his conviction, his name remains on the register until the conviction is overturned on the appeal. The retention of the name of such offenders poses serious questions of constitutionality especially given the lack of a legislative grounding for such a decision.
Open vs Closed Registries
The foremost concern posed by the registry is the possibility of it being open to the public. While presently the register is only accessible to law enforcement agencies, the possibility of a public registry remains a troubling possibility. The Minister of Women and Child Development has in the previous year, pitched the need for a public registry.
Adding to the apprehension is the ‘Request for Proposal For Selection of Agency For Development & Implementation of National Registry of Sexual offenders’ released by the Ministry of Home Affairs earlier this year, which clearly states that the data on convicted offenders will be made accessible to the public.
While eight other countries also have such registries, they are generally closed to the public. Departing from this trend, the USA has had public notification of sex offender registries since the late 1990s. As a consequence, former offenders not only face social stigma and harassment, but also face a large number of restrictions and find it challenging to secure employment.
Several studies conducted on the effectiveness of these registries conclude that not only do these registries fail in reducing crime, but they also result in an increase in repeat offences, as these public registries push former offenders back into a life of crime (JJ Prescott & Rockoff 2011).
This is not to suggest the registry is a completely futile introduction. However, the limitation of such a registry must be acknowledged before it is applauded as a protective measure.
Foremost, it must be noted that only convicted sex offenders are added to the registry and consequently, the most severe limitation of the registry is that its potential in addressing sexual crimes is limited to crimes committed by repeat offenders.
With poor reporting, inordinately long trials that stretch to several years and a low conviction rate of 25.5 percent in rape cases (NCRB, Crime in India 2016), only a fraction of sex offenders land up on the registry and even when they do, it is in not until several years after the commission of their offence.
It is interesting to note that the registry also includes DNA samples and fingerprints of former offenders, making it easier to cross-verify the forensic samples collected at a scene of crime when a repeat offence is suspected. This advantage must however again be appreciated in light of the fact that these offences probably constitute a minority of the sexual offences in the country.
Potential for Repeat Offences Unknown
While general figures of recidivism are available, there are unfortunately no figures on the rates of recidivism specifically amongst sexual offenders to gauge the risk that this particular group poses and warrant the extensive financial and infrastructural investment that this registry will require to function.
While the execution of the registry will become much more clearer in the coming years, it is indisputable that it has received much attention without the realisation of its limited potential.
The addressing of sexual crimes require much more attention at the ground level with immediate need to improve the working of investigative agencies, police prosecution and courts. Equally important is the need to work on preventive strategies and tackle the factors that lead to increased vulnerability of women and children to sexual crimes.
(Shruthi Ramakrishnan is an independent legal researcher in the field of human rights. She may be contacted at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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