Does the Sex Offender Registry Keep Us Safe or Keep Us Scared? Part 1

“In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squat known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” **DUN DUN**

For most of us, the words ‘sex offender’ conjure all kinds of terrifying images. For many of us, most of what we know about sex offenses we learned from Law & Order SVU, which has dominated TV ratings for two decades. There is no denying that sexually-based offenses of any kind are extremely damaging to victims and their families. Healing from the trauma of sexual assault or abuse as either an adult or child, for any gender, can take years or even several generations. Legislation around the sentencing and tracking of people convicted of sex offenses even after they complete their sentences has become more and more intense over the past 30 years. While the intent of the legislation is to enhance public safety, the broad application of these laws has done the opposite.

In this two part blog series, I will explain the legislation and effects on public safety. In this post, I’ll review the history of the legislation and describe who is currently on our public sex offender registry. In the next post, I will address some of the myths associated with those convicted of sex offenses and share data that will dispel those myths.

Federal legislation focused on sex offenses was first established in 1994 with the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. This law established baseline standards for states to create a registry for those convicted of sex offenses that would be available to law enforcement, particularly to monitor people classified as Sexually Violent Predators. The Wetterling Act allowed law enforcement to use their discretion to decide if or when the public should be notified of a SVP in living in their community. A SVP is a person who has committed a sexually violent offense, who suffers from a mental abnormality and/or personality disorder that makes it difficult for the person to control this behavior and makes it likely that the person will commit more crimes if not incarcerated.

In 1996, Megan’s Law was passed in response to several states implementing public notification procedures allowed in the Wetterling Act. But Megan’s Law also allowed information about those convicted of sex offenses to be disclosed “for any purpose permitted under state law.”

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was passed in 2006 included the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which widely broadened the number of offenses that qualify for registration and public notification including allowing juveniles to be registered. The Walsh Act also created the National Offender Public Website that allows anyone to search for people on the registry. Most states have their own version of this website. In 2016, the International Megan’s Law required anyone on the sex offender registry to notify SORNA of any intent to travel internationally. This usually means that the person on the registry will not be allowed to enter another country.

These laws make sense on paper when we think about preventing adults and children from Sexually Violent Predators, or even people who don’t meet that qualification, but are likely to continue to commit sexually-based offenses in the future. This makes sense when we think about sex traffickers, serial rapists, pedophiles, and those who repeatedly violate children. However, these laws have gone far beyond protecting us from violent, repeat offenders.

While hearing the term “sex offender” conjurs the image of a pedophile, child molestor, and/or violent, serial rapist, the list of crimes represented on the registry are much broader. Here are some examples of crimes for which people have been required to register as sex offenders:

  • Urinating in public at bar time (exposing genitals)
  • An 18 year old who dated a 15 year old in high school, but the 15 year old’s parents objected to the relationship (sexual assault of a child)
  • Teenagers texting nude photos of themselves (child pornography)
  • Slapping or grabbing someone’s behind (sexual assault)
  • Click here for a few more

There is no distinction on the sex offender registry for sexual assault of a child committed by a pedophile and “sexual assault of a child” for the teenaged couple. Both parties will be feared in public based on the information on the registry. Both parties will have an equally difficult time finding employment, housing, picking their children up from school, or visiting parks, malls, or libraries. Both parties will likely have to register for life, and thus will be negatively affected for life.

Even Patty Wetterling, the mother who championed the first legislation around sex offenses, has spoken out against the sex offender registry and program implementation. The way it is currently constructed does not increase public safety. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence that show that the current system actually decreases public safety because the strong stigma place on people on the registry prevents them from living productive lives. Legislation and development of sex offender registries has grown mostly based on fear. There has been little in the way of evaluation of whether these laws are actually keeping us safer or even preventing sexual assault from occurring.

The registry as it currently stands also hurts families of people on the list. For example, someone living at the same address as a registered sex offender may be ridiculed by neighbors, may not be able to pass out candy on Halloween, may not be able to take an international honeymoon or have a destination wedding, or even participate in neighborhood listservs. In some states, someone one the registry traveling to a different state and staying overnight may then be required to register in the new state as well. Failure to register, even if it’s due to the misunderstanding of complicated laws, is felony.

To learn more about the unintended consequences of sex offense laws and about their efficacy, I recommend reading this five-part series from Slate from 2014.

To learn more about advocacy around this issue, you can also visit the National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws (NARSOL) or Women Against Registry (WAR).

This article was authored and edited by Karen Reece, Justified Anger Vice President of Research and Education