How Do We Pass Rational Sex-Offender Laws ?

October 12, 2009 : How Do We Pass Rational Sex-Offender Laws ?


Sex offender laws have gotten much harsher, no doubt about it. Along with mandatory minimums and post-incarceration monitoring, since 1994, when Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have created sex-offender registries containing the names and addresses of people convicted of crimes ranging from rape, to sexual abuse, to downloading child pornography, to statutory rape. (Megan’s Law, which requires community notification about sex offenders, was added to the Act two years later.)

In recent years, laws have passed to impose even stricter measures on convicted sex offenders, long after they have ostensibly paid their debt to society. The sweeping Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 set about the creation of a national sex-offender registry, “the first national online listing available to the public and searchable by ZIP code.” While it would supposedly classify sex offenders into different categories according to the severity of their crime, it has yet to be implemented.

Now, amid the shock and outrage surrounding the Garrido case, some are calling into question how effective such legislation has been. Let’s face it: Not every registered sex offender is a Phillip Garrido.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out in 2007, “in many states, people who urinate in public, teenagers who have consensual sex with each other, adults who sell sex to other adults, and kids who expose themselves as a prank are required to register as sex offenders.”

Yet registries and residency restrictions have often failed to distinguish between these and those on the opposite extreme, like Garrido, who could justifiably be classified as the worst of the worst. With 674,000 people on sex-offender registries across the country, this has stoked a culture of fear while making it harder for law enforcement to keep tabs on the most-dangerous sexual predators.

The conditions of their release require them to have a home of some sort. Yet expanding laws have made it harder for them to find a place to live. “State figures show a 27 percent increase in homelessness among California’s 67,000 registered sex offenders since the law took effect in November 2006,” it reported. Between August and the end of October 2007, “the number of offenders with no permanent address rose by 560, to 2,622.”

Americans have said they fear sex offenders more than they do terrorists, according to at least one poll.

This means that tough-on-sex-crimes legislation knows no bounds. Public sex-offender database? Check. Mandatory minimums for convicted sex offenders? Check. Color-coded license plates to alert you if that driver stuck in traffic with you might be a pervert? Ohio keeps trying.

In 2007, Human Rights Watch released a study, aptly titled “No Easy Answers,” based on a review of sex-offender registration data from all 50 states. The authors interviewed law-enforcement officials, survivors of sexual abuse and child-safety experts. They also interviewed 122 sex offenders and 90 of their loved ones. The conclusion was that sex-offender laws have gone too far.

“Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws,” the report’s authors wrote. ” … Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime-prevention measures is a core governmental obligation”

Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex-offender registration, community notification and residency-restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted and may cause more harm than good.

According to HRW, lawmakers “are steadily increasing the duration of registration requirements: in 17 states, registration is now for life. Yet former sex offenders are less and less likely to reoffend the longer they live offense-free.”

Also according to HRW, at least five states classify people who visit prostitutes as sex offenders; at least 32 require it for indecent exposure. At the same time, reported HRW, these laws “offer scant protection for children from the serious risk of sexual abuse that they face from family members or acquaintances. Indeed, people children know and trust are responsible for over 90 percent of sex crimes against them.”

The HRW report devoted a good portion of its 146 pages to the residency restrictions found in sex-offender legislation, calling them the “harshest as well as the most arbitrary.”

“The laws can banish registrants from their already-established homes, keep them from living with their families and make entire towns off-limits to them, forcing them to live in isolated rural areas.”

It also quoted Georgia House member Jerry Keen, who sponsored the state’s law banning registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places where children gather. As Keen once said during a debate on the House floor: “My intent personally is to make [residency restrictions] so onerous on those that are convicted of [sex] offenses … they will want to move to another state.”

The HRW reports: “Registrants and their families have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through their home windows, and feces left on their front doorsteps. They have been assaulted, stabbed and had their homes burned by neighbors or strangers who discovered their status as a previously convicted sex offender.

“At least four registrants have been targeted and killed (two in 2006 and two in 2005) by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide, including a teenager who was required to register after he had exposed himself to girls on their way to gym class.

“Violence directed at registrants has injured others. The children of sex offenders have been harassed by their peers at school, and wives and girlfriends of offenders have been ostracized from social networks and at their jobs.”

In the face of truly grotesque sex crimes, it can be hard to maintain perspective. But doing so is crucial in order to address those many cases where legislation is doing more harm than good.

This won’t be easy. “Given the widespread belief in the myths about sex offenders’ inherent and incurable dangerousness, it is perhaps not surprising that very few public officials have questioned the laws or their efficacy,” says HRW.

As one ACLU lawyer out it, “We’ve gotten used to having few friends on this issue. With the exception of the criminal-defense bar, there just aren’t a whole lot of people who want to stand up for the rights of sex offenders.”

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