Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Tim Hudak Plumbs The Depths

Tim Hudak is the sort of politician who searches for the inchoate fears and hatreds that lie, unspoken, just below the surface of consciousness. When he finds them, he drags them up and waves them for all to see, hoping that ugly emotions will serve his political purposes. He is what an earlier generation would have called a "rabble rouser."

And so it was probably inevitable that Hudak would turn his attention to sex offenders.

In this secular society, sex offenders are as feared and hated as demons were in the Middle Ages.

"Pedophiles watch our children from the shadows," the U.S. attorney general said in a speech several years ago. "They lie in wait, planning to ensnare and violate the innocent."

Simply say the words "sex offenders" and that's the image that comes to mind: merciless monsters, lurking in bushes, waiting to snatch toddlers away from unwary mothers.

The overwhelming majority of child abductions and child abuse may be committed by family and friends of the victim. "Sex offender" may include a huge range of criminals, from the pedophile abductor to the flasher, the peeping tom, and the 18-year-old who has consensual sex with his underage girlfriend.

And child abduction and abuse by strangers may be fantastically rare.

But none of that matters. We hear "sex offender" and we immediately think of soulless, depraved, ravenous beasts hiding in the shadows. We think of demons.

Which makes sex offenders superb fodder for politics.

"Every time you turn on the news, some kid is getting abducted, raped, and murdered," a Louisiana state senator said in 2006. Happily for the terrified parents of Louisiana, the senator knew just what to do about this horrific threat to the innocent children of his great state: In the space of one month, the legislature passed 14 separate bills targeting sex offenders.

That's been the story for 20 years all across the United States. Politicians terrify parents. Then they promise to save their children with some policy that is as intuitively attractive and emotional satisfying as it is unsupported by evidence. Draconian sentences. Harsh prison conditions. Forcing released offenders to wear satellite tracking devices for the rest of their lives. Forbidding them from doing a long list of jobs. Banning them from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and many other places.

Then there is the sex offender registry.

At first, only the police could use the registry. But access was expanded. And put online. Today, in most states, anyone can get any sex offender's photo, address, and criminal record at the click of a mouse.

In 2000, a Canadian federal-provincial task force examined the evidence on sex offender registries.

They don't help, the task force concluded. No matter. We got one.

Registries may be a waste of money but they're great politics.

But Canadian politicians did not plumb the depths of American crime politics, much to their credit. Access to the sex offender registry is still restricted to police. And no major politician has proposed anything like the online festival of fear that is common in the U.S.

Until now.

"There are currently more than 14,000 registered sex offenders living in Ontario, but there's no way for families to know if any of them live in their neighbourhood, near their child's school, or next to the park where they play," reads a press release from the Progressive Conservative campaign. Solution: a website where anyone can find any sex offender's current address. Tim Hudak "will protect hard working families and children against those who would harm us."

Actually, he will do no such thing. What he will do - if this and his other sleazy gambits get him elected - is further inflate an already exaggerated fear. He may also put more people in danger. But he will not protect hard-working families and children.

American experience shows the information in registries is routinely missing or inaccurate. Even if it weren't, it's irrelevant to most child abuse since family and friends are the culprits in most cases, and the kids are only too familiar with their addresses.

American experience also shows - to no one's surprise, surely - that making convicted sex offenders' addresses publicly available makes it very hard for sex offenders to reintegrate and live a law-abiding life. Combined with restrictions on where they can live, and what work they can do, searchable sex offender registries are an excellent way to ensure sex offenders remain unemployed, homeless, and likely to commit new crimes.

Searchable registries are also an open invitation to vigilantes.

In the U.S, there has been harassment. Threats and beatings. Even murders. In one notorious case, a Nova Scotia man got the names, photos, and addresses of 32 registered sex offenders from the state of Maine's website. He then drove to Maine and murdered two men before he was cornered by police and committed suicide.

The state took the website down. For two days. It's very popular, after all. It's what people want.

Is it what Ontarians want? I hope not. But I suspect I will be disappointed.