Sex Offender Registry
For those of you who may not know, the US Federal Government requires every state to develop some procedure for disclosing to the public when a sex offender is released into the community. Different states have different procedures for making the notifications. Most states have adopted a Sex Offender Registry that allows citizens to either search by name or by geographic location.
How Did This Happen?
Megan's Law was passed in the US Congress in 1996. This law is allowed local law enforcement agencies to inform the public about convicted sex offenders living or working in their communities. Megan's Law gained support after the case of Megan Kanka., Megan was a New Jersey 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who moved across the street from the family. The Kanka family fought to have local communities warned about sex offenders in the area. Megan'a law was passed in NJ in 1994.
A "Feel Good" Law
Megan's Law is often referred to as a "feed good" law because it has tremendous public support, citizens generally feel as though they are safer yet in reality, many argue this law is ineffective in its main purpose- preventing sex offenses.
How are Sex Offender Registries effective?
Some studies have shown a conservative reduction in the rate in which sex offenders commit another sex offense. These studies also show the registries may have acted as a deterent to sex crimes- at least initially. South Carolina, for example, had a significant decrease in sex offenses for the first 5 years it started using a sex offender registry.
How Are Sex Offender Registries ineffective?
Sex offenders have historically shown high recidivism rates despite severe consequences to their behavior. Intense mental health services have shown the most progress with this population of criminals. Some studies have found some interesting and some alarming results such as:
- One study found that both registration and online notification were associated with significant increases in plea bargains, where defendants were permitted to plead to non-sex offense charges. This is obviously not what the law has intended- instead of reducing the amount of sex offenses, the law is having the unintended effect of increasing the amount of people avoiding being labeled a sex offender instead of reducing the number of sex offenders. This does not make us any safer.
- The same study found that adult defendants who were actually prosecuted for sex crimes (the ones who did not plead) were significantly less likely to be found guilty after online registration laws were enacted. Perhaps people want to come down hard on sex offenses but have a difficult time labeling someone a sex offender when this label in many ways ruins the individual's life and follows them forever.
- The same study found that prosecutors dismissed significantly more juvenile sex crime cases after South Caroline's policy was enacted. Defendants whose charges are dismissed outright, pleaded to non-sex offense charged or acquitted are unlikely to receive specialized treatment or supervision both have shown to reduce recidivism. The message to their victims is that these offenses were not serious enough to convict.
Do Sex Offender Registries Make Us Safer?
No. A number of statistics show that each year about 90% of sex offenses are committed by first-time offenders- people who would not be on the sex offender registries yet. Sex Offender Registries may make us feel safe but they are doing little to make us actually safe. These registries may even be backfiring and making us less safe overall.
The Harm in Sex Offender Registries
Sex Offender Registries are potentially harmful in the following ways:
- Repeat offenders are often associated with addicts. Imposing additional stressors once a person is released from prison and attempting to re-integrate into society increases the likelihood of "relapse." Facing barriers when attempting to find employment, a place to live, and facing harassment from the community sets a person up for failure.
- Less sex offenders are being labeled as sex offenders in court due to the implications this label has for the person for life.
- Sex offenders who have skirted the label of sex offender are not receiving specialized treatment, intense supervision, and therapy necessary to prevent them from becoming a repeat offender.
- Citizens are falsely comforted by the availability of online registries and are focused on the sex offenders that have already been caught and suffered the consequences instead of the greater threat- the sex offender who has not been caught that has been under everyone's radar.
A Need For Legislative Change
As citizens, we need to pressure our legislative system to avoid "feel good" laws and instead focus on laws that could significantly address the issues we are concerned about. There is a great need to review research and studies since the most effective programs are not always the first things that come to mind.
Emotions need to be taken out of legislation. Feeling safer and feeling as though someone got what they deserve doesn't get us very far. We need to take our focus off of seeing justice as retaliation and put more focus on laws that could be effective. Sometimes it is the small things that do not impassion great support that actually protect the public the most.
Lastly, we need to re-evaluate why we believed we needed sex offender registries in the first place. Is this a list of monsters who should never be returned to the community in the first place or is this a list that encourages harassment and hardship for those who have been caught for heinous crimes and have been rehabilitated? In either case, the existence of the registries are either attempting to correct an ineffective rehabilitation system or are infringing about the rights of citizens who have already served their time for the crimes they have committed.