Cities will have safer streets if proposed changes to the federal sex offender registry go through, says St. Albert’s top cop. But a local lawyer fears that the new law might be too harsh on offenders.
The federal Conservatives tabled bill C-34 this Monday. The bill, if approved, would make anyone convicted of a sex crime automatically added to the National Sex Offender Registry and the National DNA Data Bank. It would also let police access both databases before a crime occurred.
This bill addresses many shortfalls with the current law, says Insp. Warren Dosko of the St. Albert RCMP. Right now, prosecutors have to ask a judge to add an offender to the registry and bank. Not everyone does this, creating gaps in the record and making it tough to spot repeat offenders.
It also prevents police from accessing the registry before a crime has happened, meaning that it cannot be used to prevent crimes — for instance by checking if a suspicious person near a school is a sexual predator.
Brent Rathgeber, the member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, said that he’d been calling for these changes on the public safety committee for a long time. “This gives law enforcement an additional tool to keep track of sexual predators,” he said.
These changes would help police identify sex offenders before they strike again, Dosko said. “It’s a step toward more community safety.”
Overkill, says lawyer
Established in 2004, the registry currently tracks anyone convicted of a sexual offence in Canada, including sexual exploitation, child pornography and sexual assault. Any information in the registry stays there forever unless a person was wrongfully convicted.
The DNA data bank, created in 2000, lets police compare the DNA of convicted sex offenders or murderers to genetic evidence found during an investigation.
There’s a lot of stigma attached to being put on this list, said Rory Ziv, a criminal defence lawyer in St. Albert, which is why prosecutors don’t add every offender to it. “You want to make sure you’re putting people in the registry because they deserve it.”
The list is meant to track serial offenders that pose a risk to public safety, he said, and these are relatively uncommon. This new law would put a woman who grabbed a man’s buttocks in a bar on the same list as a serial rapist like Paul Bernardo. “Would we want that [woman]to be registered in a national registry?” he asked. “It’s overkill.”
A butt-grab or an unwanted Christmas party kiss would be considered sexual assault before the law, said Rathgeber, a lawyer by training, but “I’d be hard pressed to find an example of where an individual [who did that]has ever been prosecuted for sexual assault.” Cops and prosecutors could and should use their discretion in laying charges in these minor cases, he said.
University of Alberta criminologist Sanjeev Anand said the new law could help investigators close more cases. “My concern … is that investigators will engage in a bit of tunnel vision.” Many sex offenders have no prior criminal record, he noted, so focusing exclusively on those in the registry could cause them to miss potential suspects.
Rathgeber acknowledged this concern. “It’s not foolproof,” he said of the registry, and would not help catch first-time offenders. It could help police narrow their list of suspects during an Amber Alert, however. “There’s no shortage of convicted sex offenders living in Edmonton,” he added. “This will allow [the Edmonton Police Service]to keep track of them.”
The law comes on the heels of other amendments proposing mandatory minimum sentences for various drug crimes. Those amendments went to third reading this week.