Posts Tagged ‘sex offender registration’

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).

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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!

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For the past week, I’ve been researching the history of sex offender registries for a podcast I’ll be airing in the coming weeks. One of the issues that’s emerged, and one that I think needs much more public discussion and debate, is the requirement for juveniles adjudicated on certain offenses to register as sex offenders.

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Recently, the group Human Rights Watch released a report on this topic, which argues that registries do more harm than good when it comes to youthful sex offenders. According to the report:

“The harm befalling youth sex offenders can be severe. Youth sex offenders on the registry experience severe psychological harm. They are stigmatized, isolated, often depressed. Many consider suicide, and some succeed. They and their families have experienced harassment and physical violence. They are sometimes shot at, beaten, even murdered; many are repeatedly threatened with violence. Some young people have to post signs stating “sex offender lives here” in the windows of their homes; others have to carry drivers’ licenses with “sex offender” printed on them in bright orange capital letters. Youth sex offenders on the registry are sometimes denied access to education because residency restriction laws prevent them from being in or near a school. Youth sex offender registrants despair of ever finding employment, even while they are burdened with mandatory fees that can reach into the hundreds of dollars on an annual basis.” (emphasis added)

From this perspective, registration and notification requirements essentially create an untenable situation for juveniles seeking to move past the harm they’ve done, even after they’ve served their time and completed any required programming.

On the flipside of this issue are those who argue that it benefits the public for citizens to know whether or not someone who has committed a sex crime is living in a particular neighborhood. Protecting children and keeping them safely out of reach of sexual predators outweighs the negative consequences experienced by those forced to register, even if those individuals are children themselves.

In 2012, a federal appellate court ruled that requiring juveniles over the age of 14 to register as sex offenders did not violate any Constitutional protections, including ones against cruel and unusual punishment or protections against self incrimination.

I think we can all agree that juveniles who commit sex crimes must be held accountable for their behavior, but does requiring them to register as sex offenders go too far? Vote in this week’s poll and make your position known!

Also, watch for my upcoming podcast about the history of sex offender registries. Think they began in the 1990s? Think again. Sex offender registries have their roots in the 1930s, and involve groups as disparate as the the mafia, the LA Sheriff’s Department, and the Parent Teacher Association (yes, the PTA). Watch for the link – coming soon!