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Do warnings about sexual offenders do more harm than good?

After information was released by RCMP and community members about convicted sex offender Travis Casaway leaving an Edmonton halfway house and returning to Yellowknife, a professor of criminology in Montreal says warnings about sex offenders can sometimes create unwanted fear.

'If all it does is it leads to fear ... there's no evidence that this helps anyone,' criminologist says

Some people say the notices sent out about convicted sex offender Travis Casaway caused a "panic" among parents. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

A professor of criminology in Montreal says warnings about sex offenders can sometimes do more harm than good, creating unwanted and unnecessary fear. 

On Tuesday, the Yellowknife Catholic School Board released a letter warning parents about an unnamed sexual offender that had returned to Yellowknife. 

The letter, written by the board's superintendent Claudia Parker, said the board wanted parents to be aware of the situation so they could "take appropriate actions to protect the safety of your children."
Claudia Parker, superintendent for the Yellowknife Catholic School Board, sent a letter to parents Tuesday, warning them that an unnamed sexual offender had returned to live in the city. (CBC)

That letter was circulated on social media, and some say it caused a "panic."

"I think it's good to warn people of this, but at the same time, sexual offenders are released into our community all the time. This isn't something new," said Sally Hammer, who's worked in the justice system for 23 years. 

Parker later confirmed the unnamed offender was Travis Casaway, whom police sent a warning about on Thursday, two days after the board's letter.

The warning said Casaway, 27, was a "violent sexual offender." He was convicted of sexually assaulting two young girls when he was 15. 

After finishing serving his five-year sentence in 2009, Casaway spent five years under court-ordered supervision in a halfway house in Edmonton.

Franca Cortoni, a professor of criminology at l'Université de Montréal, says warnings about sexual offenders are issued based on a number of criteria, including past offences, psychological risk assessments, and treatment.

But she says even if the disclosure is in the public's interest, the warning has to be released the right way. 

"If a public notification is done in a matter which the public is informed without creating fear, without creating what I call a 'witch hunt' — you know, trying to run the offender out of the town — then it can be useful," Cortoni said.

"But if all it does is it leads to fear and, like I said, wanting to get rid of the offender, there's absolutely no evidence that this helps anyone at all in preventing sexual offending."

Right to know must outweigh privacy: RCMP

RCMP say a committee decides if an offender's information should be released to the public. 

In a press release, RCMP say the committee reviews "all reports associated with the individual" in order to determine if there is "a requirement for a public interest disclosure that outweighs the right to privacy of the individual."

After serving a five-year sentence for sexually assaulting to young girls in 2002, Travis Casaway is now living in Yellowknife under court-ordered conditions, which include him having to stay away from non-family members who are 16 years old or younger. (RCMP)
Const. Elenore Sturko says she couldn't comment on exactly how long it took the committee, which includes several people from jurisdictions that are involved in the justice system, to decide to release Travis Casaway's information. She says specific information like that is kept private. 

"The person's privacy is only going to be breached when there's enough to suggest that the public's right to know — or need to know or be advised — would outweigh that person's right to privacy," Sturko said.

Call for public registry

Warnings like the one about Casaway aren't issued very often, but some Yellowknifers think people should know about every sex offender returning to the community. 

Catholic school board's Parker says a victim's parent told the board about Casaway's return.

"If we were given information about any sex offender that came into our community, we would provide that information to our parents for their children's safety," Parker said, adding that the board doesn't want to instill fear in parents. 

"It was basically just to provide parents with the information that they needed and to give them some strategies in regards to speaking to their children." 

When you give a notice about one particular individual, it takes away the idea that we should be focusing on helping our children be aware.- Franca Cortoni, criminologist

Others like Sally Hammer, who has three grandchildren in school in Yellowknife, says there should be a website where people can look up sex offenders across Canada and see their pictures and where they're living. 

"They could be in the local paper … these are the kinds of things that should be headlines.

"I think that once you commit a crime like a sexual offence, against an adult or a child, that yes, that is unfortunately part of the punishment."

But l'Université de Montréal​'s Cortoni still isn't sure simply sending out public notices about sex offenders is the right way to go.

"Being a parent myself, of course we're going to worry about our children … it's just that when you give a notice about one particular individual, it takes away the idea that we should be focusing on helping our children be aware," Cortoni said. "We don't want to scare our children, but we want to be a little bit more prepared to deal with what may come their way." 

And she says instead of creating a "witch-hunt" scenario, where people want to drive the offender out of town, it's important that the offender's life is a stable as possible. 

"With usually some community-type support for the individual — usually probably with some police support as well — what you find is that the offender can function quite effectively in the community without putting anyone at risk." 

With files from CBC's Peter Sheldon and Rachel Zelniker

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