Maclean’s Magazine recently published the following:
The five things you need to know about the National Sex Offender Registry
by Michael Friscolanti, Macleans Magazine
Apr 24, 2009
When Christopher Stephenson was a young boy—before he was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by a notorious pedophile—his father would often tuck him into bed with a classic fairy tale: The Emperor’s New Clothes. A well-known children’s book, it tells the story of a pompous but gullible monarch who mistakenly hires two swindlers to revamp his kingly wardrobe. The result? The con men convince the emperor that they have discovered a gorgeous—but invisible—new material, and then promptly parade him around town in his latest “clothes.”
1) HOW WE GOT HERE
Christopher Stephenson was 11 years old when Joseph Fredericks, a convicted child molester with a heinous criminal record, abducted the young boy from a Brampton, Ont., shopping mall on Father’s Day weekend, 1988. Fredericks kept Christopher alive for 36 hours and assaulted him repeatedly before slitting his throat and dumping his body. A coroner’s jury later concluded that if police had access to an electronic registry of known sex offenders living in the neighbourhood, detectives might have knocked on Fredericks’ door while the boy was still alive. As Jim Stephenson testified today: “There would have been a very definite, different outcome. You talk about time being of the essence in an investigation like that? Police were on the scene within about three minutes of Christopher’s abduction. They responded very quickly, but did not have much information to go on. They had no information on sex offenders who were living in the community.”
In Ottawa yesterday, as Christopher’s dad testified in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, he used that fictional fable to illustrate a very real point. “Mr. Chair, committee members,” said Jim Stephenson, sitting beside his wife, Anna. “In its present form, the [National Sex Offender Registry] has no clothes, either. It is dysfunctional, and fails to properly protect Canadians from becoming victims.”
For two days (four hours in all) the Public Safety Committee heard from a variety of expert witnesses, from bureaucrats to police officers to privacy advocates. There was news (in five years, the registry has not solved a single crime). There was honesty (some offenders are “falling through the cracks,” said a senior RCMP officer). And, of course, there was the inevitable politicking (Conservative ministers repeatedly lamented the fact that Jean Chrétien’s Liberals didn’t foresee all these obvious problems when they first introduced the registry). However, it was Brydie Bethell, representing the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, who summed it up best. “This is not an easy issue,” she said. “This issue strikes at the core of our hearts, as human beings and as parents.”
2) REGISTRATION IS OPTIONAL
More than 19,000 names appear on the national registry, but if the RCMP had its way, there would be thousands more. Unlike in Ontario, the legislation that created the national registry (The Sex Offender Information Registration Act, or SOIRA) does not make inclusion mandatory. A prosecutor must ask a judge to order a convicted sex offender onto the database, and according to statistics collected by the Mounties, almost half of all eligible criminals are spared the hassle of telling police where they live…
Ontario, under then-Premier Mike Harris, launched a provincial sex offender registry in April 2001 (eight years ago this week). It’s called Christopher’s Law, in honour of Jim and Anna’s son. Anyone in the province convicted of a sex offence is automatically added to the database, and among the “state-of-the-art” features is a geo-mapping function that can pinpoint the names and addresses of every registered rapist and pedophile who lives near a crime scene. Harris offered Ontario’s software to the Chrétien government free of charge, but for a long time, the feds weren’t interested. And when Ottawa—under increasing pressure from provincial governments—finally did decide to build a nationwide sex offender registry, they didn’t want Ontario’s help. Instead, the federal Liberals ordered the RCMP to build a completely new system from scratch. Many of the current shortcomings can be traced back to that single decision.
When they first drafted the law, the feds feared a Charter challenge. Months before the national system went live, Abraham Dyck, a sex offender in Ontario, convinced a lower court judge that Christopher’s Law is unconstitutional because it paints all offenders—from flashers to rapists—with the same brush. The Ontario Court of Appeal later disagreed, but as Doug Hoover, a federal justice official, told the committee on Tuesday, the Supreme Court could still weigh in on the issue. In other words, if the federal government moves toward automatic inclusion, it may want to wait until the country’s highest court rubber-stamps the practice.
3) FLIP THROUGH THE ROLODEX
Police have a hard enough time monitoring offenders who are ordered to comply. The computer system is so primitive, and so hampered by restrictive legislation, that it can’t even keep track of the most basic fact of all: When is Joe Offender scheduled to check in?
Everyone in the system must report to police once a year, if they leave home for more than two weeks, or if they change addresses. But the RCMP has no legal authority (or a line in the electronic database) to record a person’s next reporting date. RCMP detachments across the country are literally forced to use separate hard-copy systems—a Rolodex, for example, or an Excel spreadsheet—to monitor compliance.
The Ontario system, on the other hand, is one-stop-shopping. It provides up-to-the-second statistics, and as soon as an offender is overdue, the computer issues an automatic red flag. Kate Lines, a chief superintendent with the Ontario Provincial Police, testified in front of the community on Tuesday and made a point of showing off her registry’s technical muscle. “As of 8:15 this morning,” she said, “there are 11,963 offenders registered in the Ontario registry with 278 currently non-compliant and under investigation.” Translation: the Ontario compliance rate is precisely 96.84 per cent.
4) NO PROACTIVE USE
The purpose of the registry is to help detectives locate potential suspects living near a crime scene. Unlike in the United States—where sex offender registries are available online, and are meant to allow the public to find dangerous people living in their neighbourhooods — the Canadian version is for police use only. The content is off-limits to only a select few officers, and not a single witness who testified this week lobbied for a U.S.-style system that welcomes harassment and, in some cases, vigilantism. Three years ago this week, a New Brunswick man famously drove across the border to Maine and murdered two men whose names and addresses were posted on the state’s Internet sex offender registry.
Brydie Bethell, representing defence lawyers, testified that there are already legal measures in place to rein in the types of repeat, loathsome offenders who pose the highest threat. Police chiefs have the power to warn the public if an especially prolific sex offender is back on the streets. Canada also has dangerous offender legislation, which allows for indefinite jail terms (think Paul Bernardo) and if that doesn’t apply, prosecutors can apply for Section 810 peace bonds, which impose strict bail conditions on newly released prisoners. Lumping every convicted offender into the same registry—from, in Bethell’s words, “drunken office party kissers” to convicted pedophiles—is not only a potential waste of resources, but an unfair infringement on those who pose a very low risk of re-offending. “We are here to strike the appropriate balance, to step back and look dispassionately at what we have, what’s missing, what’s needed, and why we are doing this,” she said. “It is an issue that requires us to balance individual and collective rights.”
What police forces do want, however, is the power to use the national registry in a proactive fashion. As the law stands now, the database can only be accessed to help solve a crime, not prevent one. During his testimony, Nezan offered a troubling example of the registry’s limited capabilities. “There was a man in an elementary schoolyard taking pictures of children,” he said, not disclosing the location. “The staff who worked there didn’t recognize him as a parent, staff, reporter, or otherwise so they were alarmed by his presence. When they tried to approach him and confront him, he fled. They called the police, the police called the National Sex Offender Registry, but we couldn’t access the database because there had not been a sexual crime that had occurred. Those are the types of proactive uses that we would like to see expanded upon.”
While this article addresses some important issues, an issue not sufficiently addressed is the weaknesses in Canada’s Dangerous Sexual Offender legislation.
Unless things have radically changed in the past few years, there is a fundamental flaw in this legislation: The Crown must apply and justify the classification of an offender as a Dangerous Sexual Offender at the time of his conviction. Where officials or mental health professionals obtain information indicating high risk for recidivism once the offender has been sentenced, they are powerless – there is no mechanism that allows them to make application after the original sentence to reclassify the offender’s sentence to an indefinite term or to keep that offender in custody once the sentence expires.
I was involved with the Joseph Frederick case all those years ago and testified at the Stephenson inquest (I am not revealing any public secrets here or violating any oaths of office – this is a matter of public record). The terrible truth is that Christopher Stephenson would in all likelihood be alive today if mental health professionals within the correctional system had the option of petitioning the courts to declare high risk offenders as dangerous offenders, thereby making those offenders eligible for indefinite incarceration.
Mental health professionals knew prior to Joseph Frederick’s release from his previous incarceration that he was unrepentant and a very high risk for reoffending. He was one of those men who left me with little doubt about that. But he had served his sentence and there was no way legally to keep him in custody. Because of that, he was released from prison to abuse and murder a young boy.
And sadly Joseph Frederick was certainly not the only high risk offender to be released and to take a young child’s life within a short time of his release. Within 6 months of the time Frederick abducted and killed Christopher Stephenson, another sex offender, also identified as a very high risk for reoffending, was released from the same correctional facility to assault and murder another young boy.
After years of research and debate, this much is crystal clear: There is no cure for pedophilia. The only way to ensure the safety of the future victims of these offenders is to keep them in secure custody for the remainder of their lives. And the only way to do that is to enact legislation to permit the conversion of fixed sentences to indeterminate sentences for those individuals identified as Dangerous Sexual Offenders by mental health professional working within the correctional system.
In the Macleans article, Christopher Stephenson’s father, “who since his son’s death has found the courage to meet and counsel many jailed sex offenders”, is quoted in the final paragraph as saying, “They appreciate the fact that the sex offender registry reminds the sex offenders that somebody is watching. If that isn’t preventative enough, I don’t know what else can be suggested.”
Well, Mr. Stephenson, I have outlined another suggestion above. This is not rocket science. Until we do something to give some teeth to our Dangerous Offender legislation, there will be other Christopher Stephensons. I think we owe it to Christopher to ensure that his death was not in vain.