I Have a Little Bit of a Problem (With Sex Offender Registration).

(cross-posted from the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and U.S. of J.)

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.

6 thoughts on “I Have a Little Bit of a Problem (With Sex Offender Registration).

  1. quadmoniker September 4, 2009 at 8:09 pm Reply

    Yeah, I think this is especially true when you start to think about the kinds of things people can be convicted of sex crimes for. In Connecticut, like Virginia, if you’re a teenage boy and you have sex with your girlfriend, it’s a sex crime if she’s three years younger than you. It’s a strict liability law, so there’s no way around it. Two years ago, the age difference that triggered prosecution was two years. Those people aren’t the same as a pedophile or a rapist.

    I think, in general, people have a hard time accepting the way crime works. By and large, most sex crimes against young people (and old people, for that matter) are committed by someone known to the victim. That’s hard to know; that you may have brought into your child’s life the person who hurt them. So they’d rather pretend it’s a demon they can force to live under a bridge.

  2. yinyang September 4, 2009 at 8:42 pm Reply

    “Indeed, that’s a relatively benign example; in several states, crimes like public nudity or public urination warrant inclusion on a sex offender registry.”

    For the last day of ninth grade, one of my classmates streaked through the school for fun. He was almost placed on the sex offender registry for ten years. It’s absurd.

  3. Incertus September 5, 2009 at 1:00 am Reply

    Here in south Florida, the living restriction laws have gotten so bad that there are people living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway that connects Miami to Miami Beach because that’s the only place they can afford to live and not violate their parole. They are, for all practical purposes, legally required to be homeless.

    My objections to sex offender registries are similar to yours, but they go one step farther. At the root of our judicial system is the idea, more talked about than held to, that if you’re convicted of a crime, when you finish your sentence, your debt is paid; clean slate and all that. And in name, at least, we honor that for everyone but sex offenders. Sex offenders, for all practical purposes, never finish serving their sentences, and I have a problem with that.

    Look, if we as a society decide that child rape, for example, is so heinous a crime that the offender should be controlled for the rest of his or her life, then let’s do that. You won’t even get much argument from me, seeing as I’m a survivor of abuse myself. Lock habitual offenders up and keep them there forever. But if we’re not going to do that, then basic fairness requires that once offenders are finished with their sentences, they’re finished. No further punishment unless they do something else.

  4. VDog September 5, 2009 at 8:07 am Reply

    The registry laws have done far more harm than good. Forget about all the cases of vigilantism; forget about the fact that while these laws are to proposed to protect the children, they include children, and a huge percentage of those on the list committed crimes that had nothing to do with children; forget about the fact that study after study has proven these laws not only are ineffective, but have actually made matters worse; forget about the fact that upon release from custody, registered sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates, not the highest. In fact those who receive counseling and treatment while in custody have outstanding records as opposed to those convicted of other violent crimes! The fact is the registry and the residency / work place restrictions should be limited only to those who are proven child molesters and pedophiles. This Law Enforcement can handle and monitor effectively. Do you seriously believe a committed pedophile cannot walk or drive 500, 1000, 2500, 5000 feet or more? Jaycee Lee Dugard was abducted miles away from where Philip Garrido lived!

    I am sure we will see comments from some hysterical, uninformed individual(s) who will suggest that all those on the registry should be locked up for life or worse. They will say there is no rehabilitation for these people. And for a few they are right, which is why we need to focus on them! Once a person has done his or her time that should be it. That is the foundation of this great country and its legal system. If you don’t like it move to China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, or where ever individual rights are ignored. If a person is a proven pedophile, lock them up for a very long time and provide treatment. If treatment is not working, keep them locked up. Too many families are being destroyed for political expediency. Too many children of those on the registry are being abused and ostracized at school. Too many families are being forced into isolation and restricted from the work place. If we are truly trying to protect the children with the registry, then let’s focus on the pedophiles and child molesters’. Get rid of the residency / work place restrictions and focus on the loitering laws. Let the rest of those on the registry re-assimilate into society after they have done their time and become solid, productive citizens; part of the solution not the problem. The facts, (and the Garrido case) most of the research, and study after study have proven what we are doing now, mostly for political expediency and to appease hysterical uninformed parents is not working and is in fact making matters worse!

  5. Susana September 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm Reply

    My primary concern with this stuff is that it externalizes the problem. We know–every major study confirms–that “stranger” sex assaults are only about twenty percent of all assaults. Focusing on sex offenders encourages folks to think THEY are the [only] proble–and not the next-door neighbor, Uncle Charlie, and the stepdad. EIGHTY PERCENT of sex asssaults are someone you know – NOT a registered sex offender. Keeping your daughter safe at home, knowing where the molesters live, is just SO not the answer.

    We’ve been teaching this for years, and it’s so frustrating to still see popular culture focus on the stranger rapes…..

  6. Paula S September 5, 2009 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Great article! I agree that the system needs to be re-worked. I as a parent want to be able to know the actual crime that the sex offender committed. If it’s a situation with a 17 year old boy and his 15 year old girlfriend, that’s hardly a situation where I need to worry about my children. They need to come up with a system where there are levels or “grades” assigned to these people so we can better understand the actual danger they pose to the community (or not). I also agree that if it’s a situation where the person is not really dangerous to children that they not have their lives ruined by not being able to get jobs and housing.

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