Stop and think about sex offender registries.

July 29, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

In a political climate drenched with debate as well as petty fighting, many people embrace bipartisan cooperation when it makes one of its rare appearances. A no-brainer of a bill feels like a relief, and it indicates that Congress actually has the ability to conduct business in a productive way. The uncontested passage of a bill feels particularly sweet when the bill deals with an emotionally gratifying issue, like the recent creation of a national sex offender registry.

No one urged President Bush to veto this bill. Named for the America’s Most Wanted host’s kidnapped son, Adam Walsh, this bill had all the trappings of legislative gem: widespread bipartisan support, quick, painless passage, and the emotional pull that only arresting child molesters for 25 years can elicit.

The law establishes a national-level database of past sex offenders’ names and locations. Many states have implemented databases of this kind before, but this law penalizes past offenders more harshly for not providing current information, and increases criminal penalties for child predators as well. It certainly sounds like a Congressional slam-dunk, providing all Americans with more access to information, and better protecting the nation’s children from proven sex criminals. Most people would support such a piece of legislation without a moment’s thought.

But any issue that prompts you to think with your heart rather than your head can have disastrous results. Botched legislation has enjoyed widespread gut-reaction support before, after all. And sex offender registries have not had a shining history.

This April, a vigilante in Maine used a sex offender registry to track down and kill six convicted sex offenders. The victims included the rapist of a 13-year-old girl. But the vigilante’s prey also included an entirely harmless adult man who ended up on the state registry just for having sex with his girlfriend before she turned 16.

Vengeance-minded maniacs don’t go on sex offender registry killing-sprees that often, but the registries nonetheless come with a deep flaw: they don’t differentiate between potentially dangerous rapists and child molesters, and more innocuous offenders who have merely committed consensual statutory rape. Yet all offenders face the same treatment once they have served their time in prison: sex offenders can’t live near public schools or parks, and wherever they do move, a long line of harassing phone calls, neighborhood flyers, and police inspections tend to follow. This story on NPR follows a man who has received numerous death threats from community members who have found his name on a local sex offender registry. His crime? At age 20, he had sex with a 16-year-old, now his wife.

Sex offender registries swept the nation beginning in the mid-1990’s, with the passage of “Megan’s Law”, which required that all states provide public access to information on convicted sex offenders. The term “sex offender” has a very general meaning here, including even violators of age-of-consent laws, and in some states, sodomy laws. Like the current sex offender registry bill, Megan’s law passed easily, tugging at the heartstrings of concerned parents nationwide, and earning every supportive politician an excellent jewel to place on his or her voting record. With the passage of Megan’s law, as with this current bill, everyone involved could pat themselves on the back, breathe easily, and find solace in the fact that they had just made the country a safer place.

So, those few harmed innocents aside, do sex offender registries work against the truly dangerous criminals? First, we must note that many of the emotional assumptions about sex offenders don’t carry any weight. Most people assume that sexual predators prey on victims relentlessly, feeding on them like ravenous monsters. In fact, a variety of studies conclude that 80% of sex offenders never commit crimes again after conviction, and even fewer do so if they receive treatment.

And what best prevents a sex offender from returning to sexual abuse again? Stiffer penalties, such as the one this new bill imposes? Isolation from society, from children, from public places? Nope. As it turns out, sex offenders perform best if they can return to society as functioning, basically normal citizens. Nothing impedes this process more than ostracizing a sex offender through the use of threats, vigilante attacks, and community alienation. Sex offender registries create that killer blend of animosity and harassment. So as it turns out, the registries don’t just harm the innocents on the lists, they also prevent the true sexual criminals from reforming and becoming healthy members of society. Not such a slam-dunk after all.

When we hear of the rape of a woman or child, it frightens and outrages us so much that we clamber for any solution, any necessary sacrifice, to make us feel safer and bring the criminals to justice. But such a knee-jerk reaction desperately requires a closer examination, conducted with a clear head and a respect for fact, not emotional gratification. Diving into a policy decision without careful contemplation always brings a backlash.

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Category: Current Events, Law, Politics, Sex, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    After reading this post, I logged onto Missouri’s web site regarding registered sex offenders.  I was relieved to see that the offenders identities were linked to the specific statutes they violated and the text of that statute was always one click away. Therefore, someone visiting the site to inquire about a neighbor would have some idea as to the type and seriousness of the crime(s) committed.

    I must admit, I had been living in blissful ignorance until I visited this site today. I found out that there are a dozen people convicted of serious sex offenses living less than a 10 minute walk from my house. Not that I disagree with any of the concerns you express. I had to shake my head when reading about the guy who is still a registered sex offender even though he is currently married to his “victim.”

  2. Erika Price says:

    If only other states would take the minimal effort necessary to specify a sex offender's crime as your state does. A seemingly minor step could turn a perverted and unfair system into a potentially life-saving tool.

  3. larry says:

    NICE JOB SENATORS

    In a shop-lifting prosecution where the resulting penalty may be no more than a fine, the risk of a witness being killed to prevent them from testifying in court is probably quite low. But where the resulting penalty may be years in prison for something like a robbery, the risk to the personal safety of a testifying witness would seem to rise dramatically. So then, the congressional indifference toward rehabilitation you identify in your article would not only tend to foster recidivism, it would also seem to increase the chance that a victim of sexual assault will be killed by some pervert in order to avoid the possibility of receiving the (newly created) harshest penalties on the books.

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