Examining the pitfalls of sex offender registries
In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted blocks from his family’s home. His kidnapper drove him to a remote location, then molested and killed him.
Five years later, in 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was lured into her neighbor’s house in Mercer County, New Jersey. Her neighbor raped her, killed her and buried her body in a nearby park.
The deaths of these two children caused widespread hysteria in the United States, creating fears of child abduction and sexual predators. Distraught by the death of their children, the parents of Wetterling and Kanka lobbied for federal legislation to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. Their effort was a success.
The Jacob Wetterling Act passed in 1994, and required states to implement a sex offender registry for those convicted of a sex offense. In 1996, the federal government passed Megan’s Law, which amended the Jacob Wetterling Act by requiring law enforcement to make information regarding sex offender registries publicly available. The Jacob Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law were further amended by the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, which created a three-tiered system requiring sex offenders to keep law enforcement updated on their whereabouts after a certain amount of time.
This trifecta of federal laws forms the backbone for the system of sex offender registries in the U.S. today. There are an estimated 747,408 registered sex offenders in the country, according to a 2012 survey by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. While the large number of registered sex offenders may suggest that registries have been successful at combating sex offense crimes, research about the impacts of these registries reveals that this form of punishment is excessively punitive and nearly inconsequential in actually addressing sex offenses.
The development of sex offender registries in the U.S. is largely based on a foundation of myths and falsehoods about sex offense crimes.
One of the strongest of these myths stems from a 1986 article in Psychology Today by Robert Longo, a counselor for sex offenders in prison, and his colleague Ronald Wall. In the piece, the two men argued that “Most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses … Indeed, as many as 80 percent do.”
Longo said this statistic was based on his personal observations of his own program for sex offenders who didn’t finish their treatment. Later studies about sex offenders, however, have disputed Longo’s finding. According to a 2003 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the recidivism rate for sex offenders committing another sex crime is 5.3 percent. The recidivism rate for sex offenders committing any kind of crime was higher at 43 percent.
Still, Longo’s myth gained traction, especially after a 2003 Supreme Court ruling cited Longo’s 80 percent recidivism rate to justify upholding Alaska’s sex offender registration law. That ruling was later cited by more than 100 lower court opinions.
The 80 percent myth has contributed to the characterization of sex offenders as highly dangerous, thereby justifying the need for sex offender registries. If sex offenders cannot change their ways and are likely to continue preying on children, the reasoning goes, then the only solution is to create registries to help parents protect their children.
Another myth legitimizing sex offender registries is the overblown fear of stranger danger. The tragic deaths of Wetterling and Kanka helped fuel this myth, as both children were murdered by an unknown man.
But data on sex offense crimes shows that most sex crimes against children are committed by family members or close acquaintances. A report from the Department of Justice found that 93 percent of victims under 17 were victimized by a person they knew. It’s also common for sex offenses committed against children by close friends or family members to go unreported to law enforcement, thereby excluding these sex offenders from the registries, said Gary Potter, co-author of the book Mythology of Crime.
Potter said the dominant reason sex crimes committed by one family member against another are unreported is that those situations are viewed as a private matter, and family members don’t want to put each other on a registry.
“Sex offender registries hold down reporting,” Potter said. “And we don’t really make an active effort to look at sex offenses against children. We have a myth, and the myth is the guy in the trenchcoat offering candy … standing in the playground — which almost never happens.”
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the media, which has a tendency to sensationalize crimes involving children and strangers. The deaths of Wetterling and Kanka are just two examples of the media’s sensational coverage of crimes that are, according to research, outliers.
Kristen Zgoba, who works at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, said these kinds of stories resonate more with the public because it’s difficult for people to see their friends and family as sex offenders.
“They don’t want to think about knowing sex offenders,” Zgoba said. “The idea of a stranger relationship or a stranger case tends to carry more weight with people.”
The larger, fundamental myth underlying sex offender registries is the overblown fear of crime. The Jacob Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law were passed in the early 1990s — a time characterized by public hysteria over violent street crime and the passing of tough-on-crime policies.
“Somehow people imagine that we’re going to deter crime or deviance if we’re very, very punitive, and that doesn’t hold up,” said Jonathan Laskowitz, a sociology professor at Ithaca College. “Punishment can make things worse.”
When sex offender registries were first implemented, many saw them as a sensible way to deter crime. However, an examination of these registries reveal serious flaws that undermine their effectiveness.
Sex offender registries are applied differently state-to-state. In 13 states, registered sex offenders must stay on the registry for life. In other states, the duration for staying on the registry and following registration requirements varies from five to 30 years.
Additionally, removing oneself from a state’s sex offender registry can be its own obstacle. For instance, 15 states have no process for a person to petition to have their name removed from a registry. In other states, this petition process can entail expensive fees.
The crimes associated with sex offender registration laws vary by state, but generally encompass a wide-range of offenses, from molestation to public urination. In at least 12 states, public urination can lead to sex offender status, according to Slate. But having people who were convicted of a minor misdemeanor on a list that is intended to prevent violent sex offenses is a sign that registries are not operating the way they should be.
The expansiveness of sex offender registries also drags teenagers and children onto these lists by criminalizing consensual sexual behavior. Instances in which a young person was caught having a consensual relationship with another teen just a few years younger have resulted in charges of statutory rape and a spot on a sex offender registry. According to a study by Slate, at least 29 states list consensual sex between teenagers as a crime that can result in sex offender status.
Placing young people on sex offender registries ultimately sets them up for failure as they get older by making it more difficult for them to find adequate places to live and work.
“There are all kinds of people who, as teenagers, were entered into the registry for offenses most people wouldn’t even think of as offenses, who carry that condemnation forever,” Potter said.
The collateral consequences of being a registered sex offender can become a life sentence. In California, for instance, there are 239 mandatory restrictions on registered sex offenders. Overall, according to a report from the Council on State Governments, 27 states place some form of residency restrictions on registered sex offenders.
This kind of restriction, however, carries unintended consequences. A federal judge in San Diego, California, for instance, ruled in 2015 that a state residency restriction law was unconstitutional. The judge found that these restrictions barred offenders from more than 97 percent of “multifamily” housing such as apartment complexes and long-residence hotels.
Finding and keeping a job can also be difficult because of a person’s sex offender status, given that it’s legal for an employer to refuse to hire a sex offender. A 2014 study of sex offenders in Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found that more than half had lost employment because of their status.
Potter noted that the myriad restrictions placed on sex offenders makes it difficult for them to re-enter society.
“[It] becomes almost impossible because there’s a permanent record that pops up whenever anyone does a background search on you,” he said. “So it’s very hard to get into a position to make yourself better.”
The housing and employment prohibitions on sex offenders can also make them more likely to re-enter the criminal justice system. A lack of stability in a person’s life can potentially lead a person to commit a crime, whether it be another sex offense crime or, more likely, a street crime such as robbery.
“If you don’t have anywhere to live and you’re living under a bridge, like sex offenders who are in Florida because of residence restrictions and they can’t get jobs, then basically they’re living in communities of sex offenders where no one is employed with nothing to do all day,” Zgoba said.
The harmful implications of sex offender registries are further compounded by civil commitment: a legal procedure that confines offenders classified as sexually violent for an indefinite amount of time. There are currently 20 states with civil commitment programs.
Under civil commitment, sex offenders can be kept in prison with no hope of being released. This has come with brutal results — in Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program, more than 40 people have died in the past two decades because of civil commitment confinement.
Another problem with sex offender registries is that they were designed to prevent a person from committing a similar crime in the future. This, Laskowitz said, is an issue.
“How do you punish somebody because they might commit a crime? We’re not supposed to live in a culture that says that constitutionally,” he said.
In 2008, Zgoba conducted a study evaluating the effectiveness of Megan’s Law on sexual offenses in New Jersey. She concluded that Megan’s Law didn’t reduce the re-offense rate for sex offenders, nor reduce the number of victims of sexual offenses in the 20 years since it was enacted.
Zgoba said it’s time to reform the laws surrounding sex offender registration and notification.
“A registry and a notification process doesn’t do much,” she said. “So I think that we need to be a little bit smarter on crime and recognize that there is a relationship link between victims and offenders and focus on that more than being concerned about the two cases that are stranger cases.”
The current form of sex offender registration laws makes it difficult for people to seek the treatment necessary to re-enter society. So instead of addressing sex offense laws with impunity, some advocates believe that focusing on rehabilitating sex offenders is a better solution. Laskowitz said convicted sex offenders should be released with better access to social services along with more community supervision.
Of course, what must occur in order to reform sex offender laws is a cultural shift in how the public views crime. However, Zgoba believes this will be difficult to achieve.
“I think what’s happening here is that people would opt to think they’re safer over knowing empirically the facts,” she said. “Because of that, I don’t see a registry or a notification system ever changing because I can’t see any politicians standing up against that thought process.”
Overhauling the sex offender registration system in the U.S. will be difficult, primarily because of the flawed belief that punishment is the best deterrence to crime. Laskowitz said the hysteria, misconceptions and sensationalization of sex offenses are mythical solutions, and referred to civil commitment and registry laws as a ritual sacrifice.
“We think the troubles in our village will go away if we sacrifice somebody,” he said. “And they don’t.”
Celisa Calacal is a fourth-year journalism major who believes in sound science over hysteria. You can email them at [email protected].