Kerala to set up sex offenders’ registry, but is it really a good idea?

With fear of vigilantism and low conviction in POCSO cases, many question the practicality of a sex offenders’ registry in India.
Kerala to set up sex offenders’ registry, but is it really a good idea?
Kerala to set up sex offenders’ registry, but is it really a good idea?
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Kerala governor P Sathasivam announced on Thursday that the state would set up a registry of sex offenders which would make “identification records” of sex offenders public.

The announcement came after the alleged abduction and assault of a popular Malayalam actor and the concerns it has raised over women’s safety in the state.

And while this is not the first time the suggestion of a sex offenders’ registry has been made, is India truly ready for one?

The demand for such a registry was reiterated in January following the arrest of Sunil Rastogi by the Delhi police. Rastogi had claimed to have targeted over 500 minor girls in the last 12 years. Back then, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said that had there been such a registry, Rastogi’s name would have figured in it, preventing hundreds of other girls from falling prey.

However, Puja Marwaha who works with Child Rights and You pointed out to Shivani Singh for Hindustan Times that Rastogi’s name would have been in the registry only if he was convicted. And conviction rates under the POCSO Act remain abysmally low due to the lack of sensitivity and hand-holding during the legal process.

The idea behind making sex offenders’ details public is to make it a deterrent and reduce recidivism - a repeat offence. However, according to a study by University of Michigan Law School and Columbia Business School, public notification only helps reduce recidivism in first-time offenders.

Also, chances of vigilante action on registered offenders may increase, along with the “social and financial” costs imposed on them for non-criminal activity.

Indira Jaising, a senior advocate and human rights lawyer, told Srishti Gupta and Ashwaq Masoodi for Livemint that public naming and shaming will “alienate” convicts from the society. Given that the convict has served his/her sentence, the registry will propagate prejudice against them without proof that they are a “menace” to the society, she said.

And while a sense of righteous hatred against sexual offenders is commonplace, Amit Bhardwaj writes for Newslaundry that “the role of the criminal justice system is not to exact societal retribution, but, ostensibly, reform.”

However, there are those who support the setting up of a sex offenders’ registry too.

Ranjana Kumari, Director of Center for Social Research, told Livemint that people have the right to know and be warned about the people who they share a neighbourhood with.

Some believe that it will be particularly helpful in cases of offences committed against children.

Shaibya Saldanha, a child rights activist with Enfold India had earlier told TNM that while the registry is a good idea as long as it contains names of convicts only, the authorities should also make sure that conviction rate in these cases increases.

Trajectory of the demand in India

In India, the demand for a national sex offenders’ registry was first raised by the UPA government in 2012 following Jyoti Singh’s gangrape and subsequent death in Delhi.

It was then raised by Maneka Gandhi in 2015, who proposed that the online database include charge-sheeted sexual offenders too and include juveniles, reported Himanshi Dhawan for TOI. This was just before the minor accused in the Jyoti Singh case was to be released from the juvenile home.  

The registry was to be made accessible to the public online through the crime and criminal tracking network and systems (CCTNS) project. However, names and addresses of the juveniles in the registry would be withheld from the public.  

The project, supposed to be completed by March this year, would include and publicize “photographs, addresses, PAN card details, Aadhaar card number, fingerprints and DNA samples” of the offenders, reported The Hindu in April last year.

Union MoS for Home Affairs Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhury had clarified then that the names of the offenders will be added to the registry only after they have been convicted and have served their sentence. Under trials and those appealing in a higher court would be exempt from being registered, he said.

However, by December, the debate about making offenders’ records public was still ongoing. In January this year, the demand for the registry was raised again following the arrest of Sunil Rastogi, who claimed to have raped and sexually assaulted over 500 minors in the last 12 years.

Several countries across the world like Australia, US, UK, Canada, Maldives and South Africa, among others have national sex offenders’ registries. However, only the US, South Korea and Maldives have made them public, with the latter having made child sex offenders’ records public in 2015. The other countries either provide discretionary access or maintain them for their law enforcement agencies.

Convicted offenders are required to provide updated details about their whereabouts, employment and in varied cases, also report to local law enforcement periodically or in case of changes in their registration details. These records include the name, photograph, age and other identification parameters of the offenders. For instance, South Korea also includes a case summary of their crimes.

Many of the countries have a public notification system, which aims to notify community members and potential victims about a sex offender being in the vicinity.  

Only a convicted offender can be registered in the registry, and the period of registration varies from country to country and also based on the degree of the offense and recidivism. In some cases, it can even be for a lifetime. 

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