Children on the Sex Offender Register in Western Australia
How does a 15-year-old boy end up on the sex offender’s register?
A recent online article by WA Today provides the details - https://www.watoday.com.au/politics/western-australia/he-was-stupid-not-a-paedophile-reform-urged-after-15-year-old-ends-up-on-sex-offender-register-20230406-p5cyru.html
What happened to this Perth teenager highlights how draconian the sex offender laws are in our state. The story is a catalyst for a call for reform.
Summary of the Story
In a nutshell, the story covers a teenager, now aged 17, who was convicted in the Children’s Court of two counts of procuring a child to do an indecent act. The charges related to the young teen asking a classmate for intimate images via Instagram when he was just 15 years old.
Because the offences were reportable under the Community Protection (Offender Reporting) Act WA, the convictions required the boy’s automatic registration on the state’s sex offender registry. Subsequently, the boy lost his appeal to quash the conviction (which would have had the effect of also removing his name from the register).
Registration on the sex offender registry can last for several years. Under the rules imposed on this teenager, WA Today notes that his friends cannot stay with him in the same house without notifying authorities, and he can’t join a new sports club without notifying both the police and the club that he is a registered sex offender.
Calls for change
The sex offender’s register exists to protect the community from dangerous sex offenders.
But as this particular case shows, we need to reconsider automatic registration and enact laws that allow the courts greater discretion to scrutinise offences such as this one in order to determine whether registration on the sex offenders register is appropriate and necessary.
Young people are being unfairly stigmatised
This is not the first time the issue has been raised. In 2019 an upper house committee report found that WA’s mandatory registration laws for young people were the harshest in the country and that the courts should have more discretion.
The same report found between 2014 and 2018 there were 262 children registered as reportable offenders. 79 of those youths were under 14 years old and 35 were charged with possession or distribution of child exploitation material.
Frequently, the charge of possession of child exploitation material (possession of CEM) relates to the act of sharing intimate images, which is something relatively new for the law to deal with. Certainly, it is unique to the current generation of young people exploring sexuality and relationship boundaries via technology.
What about other Australian states?
In the past several years, states like NSW and Victoria have reconsidered mandatory registration and empowered courts with the discretion to register only young people convicted of particularly heinous sexual crimes.
New South Wales has introduced a range of new laws after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Among the new laws are laws relating to teens of a ‘similar age engaging in consensual ‘sexting’ – sharing sexually explicit images with each other via text or email or social media.
With sexting becoming more commonplace in modern society, the Royal Commission identified the criminalisation of sexting as a shortcoming in current legislation surrounding sexual offending against children.
In accordance with the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the new sexting exception and defence was introduced in the Criminal Legislation Amendment (Child Sexual Abuse) Act 2018.
This amendment has made it legal for children to engage in ‘sexting’ and was introduced to “reflect the current understanding about normal sexual development and experimentation amongst teenagers”.
So, what’s the answer? New South Wales and Victoria have some models Western Australia could look to. Certainly, we need to keep a close eye on developments in technology which are occurring at a rapid pace. We also need to consider how young people are interacting while using electronic devices to ensure we have protective laws in place because social media and gaming platforms are often where predators tend to be searching for victims. These are also platforms where revenge porn and sextortion thrive.
However, the laws need to be balanced with realistic discernment that putting young people on the sex offender’s register does have the potential for long-term adverse consequences. It has the potential to create a stigma that stays with the person and likely impacts their emotional well-being for many years.
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