The thing that bothers me most about this New York Times piece on the efficacy of sex offender alert programs is… that it focuses on the efficacy of sex offender alert programs, and doesn’t bother to raise any objections to the idea of a sex offender alert program. Indeed, it’s pretty much taken for granted that everyone wants some sort of program or registry that catalogs and monitors sex offenders. So, at the risk of sounding objectively pro-sex offender, I’m going to say that I’m a more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of a sex offender alert program, and sex offender registries more generally.
The practical objections are pretty straightforward and are worth repeating. For starters, the definition of “sex offender” is impossibly broad and varies from state to state. In Virginia, for instance, a sixteen year old who has a sexual relationship with his fourteen year old girlfriend would would “qualify” as a sex offender, due to Virginia law giving sex offender status to anyone having sexual relations with someone under the age of 15. And if, for whatever reason, he was arrested, prosecuted and convicted for having sex with his girlfriend, he would have earned himself a permanent spot on Virginia’s sex offender registry. Indeed, that’s a relatively benign example; in several states, crimes like public nudity or public urination warrant inclusion on a sex offender registry. Unsurprisingly, this loose definition of sex offender has left us with a ridiculously high number of registered sex offenders. By the Economist’s count (and I recommend that you read the whole article), there are 674,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S., and considering the huge range of crimes which warrant registration, there’s no question that a plurality – or even a majority – of those are unfairly listed as sex offenders. Which is made all the more problematic when you consider that sex offender registries often don’t provide enough information for the reader to make a judgment on whether or not the person in question is actually dangerous.
It doesn’t help that states continue to pass incredibly draconian sex offender laws. In Georgia, for example, registered offenders are barred from living within 1,000 feet of any area where children may gather, including schools, libraries, parks and other public recreation facilities. Furthermore, sex offenders are forbidden from even working with 1,000 feet of schools or child-care facilities. The sheer number of restrictions associated with being a registered sex offender make it nearly impossible to carve out a life post-conviction and in all likelihood, play a significant part in contributing to the high levels of homelessness among convicted sex offenders.
Now, it’s worth saying that I understand why the public supports registering sex offenders; a significant number of those registered have committed terrible crimes against children, and it is important that parents can identify those offenders, considering the relatively high rate of recidivism among sex offenders. That said, sex offender registration laws – as currently constituted – are mostly counterproductive. The downside of registering thousands of people for crimes like public nudity or streaking is that it becomes nearly impossible to monitor the offenders who pose an actual threat to children. What’s more, the side-effects of harsh sex offender laws – homelessness, joblessness, heightened anxiety and stress – make it far more likely that serious sex offenders will commit further crimes out of desperation.
Trying to make life a little more comfortable for convicted sex offenders isn’t exactly popular, but it’s necessary. Condemning men and women – most of whom have served their time in prison or on probation – to a lifetime of severe restrictions is counterproductive and manifestly unfair. Sure, forcing sexual offenders onto the streets or into the poorhouses might make us feel good, but it does absolutely nothing to help us build safe and strong communities.