Opinion

‘Know your neighbourhood rapist’ is not the best approach to preventing sexual violence

Sex offender lists of chargesheeted people, as planned by the government, overturn the notion of innocent until proved guilty

On July 16, Ravinder Kumar, 24, was arrested for raping and killing a six-year-old girl in Begumpur in south Delhi. As the police interrogated him, a grim story emerged. Kumar confessed to raping and killing at least 30 children since 2008. His alleged victims were both girls and boys, lured into lonely places by offers of sweets or money. He operated mostly in the outer reaches of Delhi, around Begumpur, Kanjhawala, Mundka, Noida.

It then turned out that last year, Kumar had been arrested for assaulting a six-year-old boy in Begumpur. After 11 months, he was let off on bail. Would the children he allegedly killed afterwards have lived if their parents had known about Kumar’s criminal record? Perhaps, if these parents, mostly poor and living in slums or villages, had thought to check the internet or the friendly neighbourhood police station for information on characters lurking suspiciously around their homes.

Horrifying stories like Kumar’s do push the case for a public Sex Offenders Registry. The idea was first floated in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and has now been revived by the Union Home Ministry. It plans to compile an online database of chargesheeted sexual offenders that would be available to the public by 2017. The registry would be part of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems project, which aims to link the records of 20,000 police stations across the country.

Rather like Megan’s Law

The Home Ministry is perhaps taking notes from the US Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website, which agglomerates the sex offender lists of the states. These may include the name, photograph and current location of the offenders on the list. But there are two vital facts about the American context that the Home Ministry may have missed.

First, the registries were no executive whim. The US has a set of laws regulating public registries of sex offenders. The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexual Violent Offender Registration Act, passed at the federal level in 1994, set down guidelines for states to track sexual offenders. In 1996, after the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, every state passed a “Megan’s Law”, which made information contained in the state sex offender registries available to the public.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, 2006, defined three categories of sexual offence. Tier I offences, usually non-violent, require the individual to be registered for 15 years, with yearly verification. Tier II offences, usually non-violent but involving minors, require registration for 25 years and verification twice annually. Tier III offences, which includes violent crimes, get the offender registered for life, with quarterly verification.

Second, Megan’s Law defines persons who have been convicted or pleaded guilty as sex offenders. The Indian Home Ministry is happy to enter chargesheeted people in the list. Granted, the criminal justice system moves at snail’s pace in India, trials drag on for years and criminals like Ravinder Kumar get out on bail. But naming chargesheeted people turns the principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head. Individuals named and shamed by the lists are indicted even before their cases are decided by the courts. Scrap that, even before the charges are admitted by the courts.

Basic rights

Within the American framework, sex offender lists undermine some basic rights. They brand a person who has served out his or her sentence as an offender, leading to a situation of “perpetual punishment”. For years, or perhaps for the rest of their lives, people on the list are unable to find homes or jobs, often confined to banishment zones where other condemned people have huddled together. This is not reformative justice.

It even punishes those who may have reformed. Take the case of Frank Lindsay, convicted in 1979 of “lewd and lascivious acts with a minor”. Lindsay says he was under the influence of alcohol at the time. Since then, he has become a teetotaler, a Taoist and an advocate of restorative justice. But he will remain on California’s sex offender list for the rest of his life, unable to travel anywhere without telling the police.

Megan’s Law also leaves the individual’s right to privacy compromised. With their names, addresses and offences up on the internet, anyone can be privy to these details, not just the affected community. Of course, the current Indian government might consider privacy a luxury. Recently, the additional solicitor general told the Supreme Court that privacy was not a fundamental right, since it didn’t explicitly say so in the Constitution.

Vigilantism and instant justice

Most dangerously, Megan’s Law has been known to unleash the forces of vigilantism, with communities burning down the homes of sex offenders or beating them up. Anecdotal evidence suggests Indian societies are quick to take the law in their own hands, conducting midnight raids on Nigerian women living in the capital, lynching an alleged rapist in Dimapur and a school principal held responsible for the deaths of two children in Bihar. Offender lists could help identify more targets for this sense of morality.

The December 16 protests were valuable. They created a new awareness about crimes against women, they made sexual violence the centre of discussion and a new focus for legislative action. But in the rising tide of voices, there was also a demand for instant, retributive justice and for draconian laws to act as a deterrent. The experience of Megan’s Law has not shown that it helps curb such crimes. Most crucially, do we want to enact such laws at the cost of basic rights?

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