Will we be safer?

Strict new legislation will ensure every sex offender is put on a federal registry

Without exception

Tillman’s name would have been registered under the new rules despite the fact that the prosecutor didn’t ask for a registration order | Troy Fleece/CP

Eighteen months ago, the federal government promised to finally fix Canada’s dysfunctional sex-offender registry. At the heart of the proposed legislation was a “mandatory inclusion” rule, ensuring that every person guilty of a sex crime actually ends up on the database. No exceptions. No excuses.

But eighteen months later, as Bill S-2 slowly works its way through Parliament, the status quo stands in the courts: a prosecutor must still ask a judge to add a rapist or pedophile to the registry—and some judges are still refusing. Like in the case of J.W., a Nova Scotia man sentenced to 15 months probation for pinning his girlfriend against a wall and tearing off her clothes. The Crown wanted him registered, but J.W. told the court he was planning to enlist in the military after serving his sentence, and that checking in with police on a regular basis would be tricky.

The judge gave him a pass. “As a member of the Canadian Forces, J.W. will, no doubt, be required to make frequent changes of his primary residence due to the changing locations of his basic training, ongoing training and field manoeuvres as well as placements on tours of duty,” wrote Justice Theodore Tax. “These frequent changes, which may be in remote locations inside or outside of Canada, will no doubt have a significant impact on his ability to comply with the [sex offender] reporting obligations.”

Such exemptions will soon be extinct. S-2 has already passed through the Senate, and when it clears third reading in the House of Commons (likely in early 2011) judges will lose all discretion when it comes to the registry. Every single sex offender, regardless of the circumstances, will have to report to police once a year, notify the cops of an address change, and endure the odd visit from detectives if, for in—stance, a child is abducted from the neighbourhood.

For the RCMP, the force in charge of the registry, the new law will remedy years of frustration. Since the database was first launched in 2004, the Mounties have been warning their political masters that the system is an embarrassing mess—riddled by weak legislation, laughable technology, and a Parliament obsessed with protecting the privacy rights of proven criminals. Optional registration is just one of countless deficiencies. Hundreds of offenders are missing, countless more have exploited a rule that allows them to leave home for two weeks without telling authorities, and the computer that is supposed to keep track of everyone is so archaic that it can’t even record the most basic fact: when is a person scheduled to check in?

After a Maclean’s investigation, based on scathing internal memos obtained under Access to Information laws, the federal Conservatives finally took action. But today, as their response inches toward royal assent, a delicate question lingers: is mandatory inclusion the best solution? Should criminals like J.W.—an 18-year-old first-time offender deemed a “very low risk” to strike again—be lumped in the same category as hard-core sexual predators? The registry, which already contains more than 24,000 names, was designed to provide police with an instant list of suspects living near a crime scene. But does the next J.W. really belong on that list? Will society be any safer?

“Sexual assault is everything from pinching someone to full, violent rape,” says Stephen Robertson, J.W.’s lawyer. “Are you telling me that one end of the spectrum should be treated the same as the other? It would be terrible. The judge could see this was a decent boy who let his impulses get away one time and was immediately remorseful. The military angle was just one extra thing the judge could point to.”

Critics of the mandatory rule can point to another case: R. vs. Eric Tillman. Twelve months ago, the former general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders was granted an absolute discharge (guilty, but no criminal record) for sexually assaulting his children’s 16-year-old babysitter. Felling “loopy” after popping pills for back pain, Tillman grabbed the teenager’s hips, puts his fingers through her belt loops and wheeled her around. In the judge’s words, “while in that position there was physical contact of a sexual nature.”

The whole episode lasted just a few seconds—and Tillman has said he doesn’t remember any of it. He later apologized to the unnamed girl (she forgave him) and the prosecutor didn’t even bother asking for a registration order. Under the new system, however, Tillman’s name would have been automatically entered—no questions asked.

“He is not somebody who should be on a sex offender registry,” says Aaron Fox, his Regina lawyer. (Now the GM of the Edmonton Eskimos, Tillman did not respond to an interview request through a team spokesman.) “The registry will begin to become meaningless,” Fox continues. “It just won’t have the significance it’s supposed to have.”

Gary McLennan does not agree. A retired Mountie who ran the registry centre in Saskatchewan, he says there is no magic tool that can predict who will reoffend. And people like Tillman, who commit so-called “minor” crimes, are removed from the computer after 10 years. “He should have been on, I’m sorry,” McLennan says. “It’s not a big inconvenience. Once a year you have to register and have your picture taken, and after 10 years it’s goodbye. You prove to us in 10 years that you’re not going to recommit an offence.”

As for the Tories, don’t expect any last-minute amendments that scrap the mandatory plans. “Police services and victims’ groups have been clear: the national sex-offender registry must be strengthened so that it better protects our children and communities from sexual offenders,” says David Charbonneau, a spokesman for Public Safety Canada. “We are determined to strengthen the registry so that it becomes a more effective tool.”


Will we be safer?

  1. Extra-judicial punishments like this violate basic rights, if someone is a danger to the public, they should be locked up and punished accordingly, if they have 'served their time' or 'paid their debt to society', they should be free to go.

    • You're assuming that someone who has done their time is "cured" of their evil ways? Who rights are violated when they re-offend?
      A ten year "test" of your ability to behave seams like better then nothing and hardly a hardship.

      • "Cured of their evil ways", recidivism is not confined to sexual offences. Violent criminals frequently re-offend, thieves frequently re-offend and drunken drivers re-offend frequently too. There is no requirement for a registry for each of these offences and their commission blights many lives. Clearly there is something that is most upsetting about those crimes that fall under the category of sex-crimes, that make extra-judicial punishments strangely acceptable. There are two things that can be done and maintain equality of treatment under the law,

        1: We can formulate a separate kind of legal system specifically to deal with sex crimes that involves assessment before release. Accept that it is a disease and treat it as such.

        2: We can increase sentences and raise the whole level of punishment to increase the length of time that offenders spend inside.

        Clearly the second option is more of the same and we would soon find ourselves back at the beginning again. If sex offences are not addressed appropriately by sentencing, then I would suggest that it is time to address them as unique entities that require their own system. So we need to set up a separate legal mechanism to deal with these offences that the existing mechanism obviously isn't able to handle fairly even given the band-aid solutions being attempted now.

      • Potential innocent victims are far more important than these sickos, I totally agree with you there.

        But regardless of whether there is a 'cure' or not – the punishment should be harsh enough to make them control themselves if they are ever to be let out again, if they are unable to control themselves, do not let them out.

  2. Will we be safer?

    Don't we all feel safer after the gun registry billiondoggle?

  3. As long as the list isn't made public then I'm ok with this. Not a big fan of it but whatever.

  4. On June 10, 2010 a 17-year-old boy from western Manitoba was been convicted of sexual assault for having consensual sex with a 13-year-old during a game of Truth or Dare (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/17-year-old-guilty-of-sex-with-girl-13-96034564.html). If Bill S-2 comes into force, and inclusion is thus automatic, this boy would be placed on the Sex Offender Registry. The Conservative government of Canada would have you believe that the inclusion of this boy on the registry is essential to the goal of ‘protecting society'.

    If another of the Conservatives bills passes- Bill C-23B- this boy will never be eligible for a pardon.Are we really to believe that any of this makes society safer?

    By focusing on former sex offenders, a very easy target, the government will look tough on crime without having to do any real work, like finding solutions to the real and constant threats to child safety in Canada.

  5. The Ontario sex offender registry has been operational for almost ten years. In 2007, the Ontario Auditor General observed, there is little evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of registries in reducing sexual crimes or helping investigators to solve them and the Ministry has yet to establish performance measures for its Registry (Rrtrieved from: http://www.priv.gc.ca/parl/2010/parl_20100415_e.c

    The registry has failed for the simple reason that most individuals who had offended sexually NEVER REOFFEND; those that do reoffend do not reoffend sexually. Former offenders it appears, will continue to be punished, not for what they are likely to do in the future, but for what they have done in the past.

    Why has the conservatives done nothing to to deal with the sexual offending that we KNOW happens every day? Would you be surprised to learn that, in a report published in 1995, it was revealed that "8 out of 10 Canadian female students said they had been sexually harassed at school"? I'm also certain that most of you didn't know that, 15 years later, this deplorable situation in our schools continue: up to 33% of students said they had been sexually harassed at school (http://www.citytv.com/toronto/citynews/news/local/article/20851–girls-accepting-sexual-assault-at-school-as-fact-of-life-reports). it appears that when real work needs to be done the Conservatives remain silent.

    This new legislation will help the Conservatives to look 'tough on crime' and it may well prevent the successful reintegration of former offenders (thus potentially INCREASING recidivism), but it will do nothing to make society safer.

  6. The more we can keep track of these criminals, there will be more justice for the abused.