No group is more feared or reviled in American society than sex offenders. As a result, both state and federal laws have become more and more harsh over time. This hasn’t necessarily been in response to the need for harsher sentences, but reflects more of a political response to high-profile tragedies that stoke the flames of hatred and paranoia about sexual predation (PDF).
Although they are also driven by fear, sex offender registries in particular have been a favored community response to sexual crimes, and many believe that they are an important instrument for preventing sex offenses.
What we know, though, is that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Most offenders (approaching 90%) are known to their victims. Stranger assaults are one of the rarest forms of sex crime, so knowing where a sex offender lives does little in the way of preventing these crimes from occurring.
Even those who have suffered most directly, such as Patty Wetterling, have come to recognize that draconian laws, including sex offender registries, are not the only or best way to move forward.
This hasn’t stopped one community in New York, though, that has decided to privatize monitoring of registration compliance in ways that are neither useful nor rational. Known as “Trackers,” employees of a private non-profit are paid to monitor the locations of certain sex offenders in the community.
Although it receives $1 million dollars in public funds, the agency that employs the Trackers won’t disclose exactly what their procedures are for monitoring.
It appears, however, their tactics mainly involve harassment and intimidation intended to discourage sex offenders from living in their community at all.
While no one is arguing that sexual offending is a minor concern, or that such crimes should go unpunished, jurisdictions around the country are beginning to recognize that harsh laws alone are not the primary answer.
According to Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor quoted in an NPR story on this issue:
…while there are many jurisdictions like Suffolk County still creating broad, harsh restrictions against sex offenders, the national trend is the other way. More and more communities are creating nuanced laws that attempt to match restrictions with the likelihood an offender will commit another offense.
Instead of lumping all offenders into the catch-all category, “sex offenders,” and then treating them all as being equally dangerous, there’s a recognition that some are more dangerous than others.
The most dangerous and predatory are likely in need of closer monitoring, supervision, and management (PDF).
But, private agencies intent on engaging primarily in harassment are less than helpful, and may even be creating additional risks without intending to do so.
Again, Professor Ackerman:
When we are destabilizing offenders, when we’re making it very difficult for them to find housing or very difficult to find work, we’re causing more stress, and that may in the future lead to recidivism.
What are your thoughts on this controversial topic?
Vote in this week’s poll and leave a comment below!
Want posts conveniently delivered to your email inbox? Just follow crimeandjusticeblog.com by clicking on the link in the left sidebar, or sign up for our monthly roundup of top blog posts.
Share this article with all your favorite services!