Do Sex Offender Registries Protect the Public?

A year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder publicly called mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenders "draconian," saying such penalties were intended for kingpins and violent offenders. He said the existing system was "coldly efficient" in incarcerating and warehousing offenders, but did nothing to actually reduce drug activity in the United States.

A recent Slate article uses the same term to describe our nation's sex offender registries and laws. In the article, Chanakya Sethi writes, "Since 1994, when Congress first ordered states to create sex offender registries, the laws in the United States about sex crimes have steadily ratcheted up. We now have what experts say is the most draconian regime in the world."

Sex offender registration laws were enacted in an effort to keep the public safe from predators and habitual offenders. However, these laws were in many cases a knee-jerk reaction to the rare instances when a violent sex offender claimed another victim. Public opinion held that if families were aware of the sex offenders living nearby, they could thus avoid them and protect themselves from threat of harm.

The problem is that most research now indicates that sex offender registries have little effect on public safety. Despite there being little to no evidence of the effectiveness of sex offender registries, lawmakers across the nation continue to expand registration requirements.

In Oklahoma, for example, the federally mandated risk level "tiers" are assigned based strictly on offense. Level 3 sex offenders in Oklahoma should have the highest risk of reoffending; however, some of these people required to register as sex offenders for life are actually at low risk of reoffense. For example, those convicted of statutory rape are classified in the same risk level as violent rapists and habitual offenders.

In recent years, the "zone of safety" has also expanded. This is the area around schools, parks, playgrounds, and child care facilities which sex offenders are not allowed to breach. Sex offenders can legally reside in only about 16 percent of the property in Oklahoma City; in Tulsa, only 8 percent of the property is available. Rather than making the public safer by limiting the housing of sex offenders, these restrictions often cause sex offenders to stop registering or become homeless, making them harder to track.

Sethi writes of this very phenomenon:

"The Center for Sex Offender Management, the research group funded by the Department of Justice, has identified 20 best practices, including better treatment programs, more housing options upon release from prison, and distinct strategies for dealing with juvenile offenders. These ideas are actually grounded in science. The report cited research showing that treatment 'is associated with reduced recidivism among sex offenders,' which is why ensuring its ability is vital to improving public safety. Similarly, the research demonstrated that 'stabilization in the community contributes to decreases in reoffense rates.' And yet laws restricting where sex offenders can live have swept the nation in recent years, leaving homeless offenders to live under bridges."

Support for sex offender law reform comes from a surprising source: Patty Wetterling, whose 11-year-old son was kidnapped 25 years ago. Her son's name is on the Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (Wetterling Act) which implemented sex offender registration in 1994.

Patty Wetterling is a proponent of change that would actually protect the public by reducing recidivism. She tells Sethi, "These are human beings who made a mistake. If we want them to succeed, we're going to need to build a place for integrating them into our culture. Right now, you couldn't walk into a church or community meeting and say, "I was a sex offender, but I've gone through treatment. I now have this lovely family, and I am so grateful to be a part of this community.' There is no place for success stories. Nobody believes them."

Sex offender registries may provide a false sense of security while unnecessarily punishing the perpetrator beyond what is necessary or appropriate. After all, most victims of sexual abuse or assault are not victimized by a stranger, but rather by someone known or related to them. Up to 76 percent of women who are victims of sexual assault were raped or assaulted by a current or former spouse, live-in partner, or date. Up to 60 percent of boys and up to 80 percent of girls who are the victims of child sexual abuse are victimized by someone the child or his or her family knows, including relatives, babysitters, friends, childcare providers, and others in authority over the child.

Sex offender registries may make us feel like we are safe from the boogeyman next door, but they do nothing to protect us from the more likely threat behind our own doors.

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