Examining Sex Offender Laws

Examining Sex Offender Laws September 19, 2007

Needless to say there are not numerous organizations stepping forward to say that child sex offenders are not being treated fairly or wisely.  Human Rights Watch has recently issued a report, “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US“.  Before one dismisses them as apologists for sex offenders or pollyannas who don’t recognize the difficult choices society must make, one should understand the HRW does believe that the protection of children is a legitimate goal; they also believe that community notification and registration can be an effective and just means of accomplishing this goal.

From the introduction to the report:

The reality is that sex offenders are a great political target, but that doesn’t mean any law under the sun is appropriate. 

—Illinois State Representative John Fritchey1

People want a silver bullet that will protect their children, [but] there is no silver bullet. There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence.

—Patty Wetterling, child safety advocate whose son was abducted in 1989 and remains missing2 

What happened to nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford is every parent’s worst nightmare.  In February 2005 she was abducted from her home in Florida, raped, and buried alive by a stranger, a next-door neighbor who had been twice convicted of molesting children. Over the past decade, several horrific crimes like Jessica’s murder have captured massive media attention and fueled widespread fears that children are at high risk of assault by repeat sex offenders. Politicians have responded with a series of laws, including the sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws that are the subject of this report. 

Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of specified crimes that involve sexual conduct to register with law enforcement—regardless of whether the crimes involved children. So-called “Megan’s Laws” establish public access to registry information, primarily by mandating the creation of online registries that provide a former offender’s criminal history, current photograph, current address, and other information such as place of employment. In many states everyone who is required to register is included on the online registry. A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance (typically 500 to 2,500 feet) of places where children gather—for example, schools, playgrounds, and daycare centers.

Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws. They reflect a deep public yearning for safety in a world that seems increasingly threatening. 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:

  • The registration laws are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk;
  • Under community notification laws, anyone anywhere can access online sex offender registries for purposes that may have nothing to do with public safety. Harassment of and violence against registrants have been the predictable result;
  • In many cases, residency restrictions have the effect of banishing registrants from entire urban areas and forcing them to live far from their homes and families. 

The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them. Even assuming some public safety benefit, however, the laws can be reformed to reduce their adverse effects without compromising that benefit. Registration laws should be narrowed in scope and duration. Publicly accessible online registries should be eliminated, and community notification should be accomplished solely by law enforcement officials. Blanket residency restrictions should be abolished.

Note on Recidivism

Sex offenders do not recidivate at far higher rates than other offenders, as is often believed. A federal study of prisoners released in 1994 found that 67.5 percent of all former prisoners were rearrested for a new offense within three years of their release.53  Rearrest rates varied by category of crime: 70.2 percent for those who had been in prison for robbery, 74 percent for burglary, and 41.4 percent for homicide. Released rapists had a rearrest rate of 46 percent.54 These rearrests are for any crime, not necessarily the same type of crime for which they had been in prison. Only 2.5 percent of prisoners who had been convicted of rape were arrested for another rape in the three-year post-release period.55 The other released rapists were either rearrested for something other than rape (for example, non-sexual assault or property offenses) or not rearrested at all. 

Proposed Solutions:

Human rights protections and guarantees create a duty to protect children—and everyone—from sexual abuse and to hold accountable those who commit acts of sexual violence. For Human Rights Watch, criticizing sex offender laws and demanding that public officials take more care in how they address the problem of sexual violence reflects our commitment to protecting all members of society from sex crimes. There is, however, no inherent contradiction between protecting the rights of children and protecting the rights of former offenders. Both are protected if registration is limited to former offenders who have been individually assessed as dangerous, and only for so long as they pose a high or medium risk of reoffending; if community notification is restricted on a need-to-know basis to those who genuinely can benefit from knowledge about dangerous former offenders in their midst; and if residency restrictions are imposed, if at all, only as part of individual supervision measures established on a case-by-case basis and periodically reviewed, and with child offenders exempted from sex offender laws unless a panel determines them to be of significant risk to the community. We urge legislators and the public to support reform to sex offender laws along these lines. 

Human Rights Watch also urges legislators and the public to expand their efforts to prevent sexual violence beyond punitive monitoring and information dissemination measures targeting former offenders. Comprehensive approaches to the prevention of sex crimes against children would entail making sure parents have the tools they need to detect signs of adults with sex behavior problems, to help teach their children about warning signs, and to find the support they need for healthy parenting. Efforts to prevent child sexual abuse and to provide for early interventions with children and families at risk must be strategically examined and strengthened. 

Broad-based community notification and residency restriction laws are not the panacea to stopping sexual violence. Those who care about ending sex crimes must demand that policymakers reject one-size-fits-all laws to address sex abuse and begin to invest the political and financial resources in policies that actually work.

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