IT IS TIME TO START REDUCING THE REGISTRIES
Making the registries more effective should start with reducing the number of offenders listed. Removing those who do not pose any particular public danger would both remedy the injustices done to them and improve public officials’ ability to monitor those who remain. Two groups in particular deserve speedy release from the registries: those convicted of minor, sometimes non-sexual offenses and those whose convictions were handed down by juvenile courts.
Adults convicted of offenses like indecent exposure, public urination, prostitution or soliciting prostitution, kidnapping their own children as part of a custody dispute, and consensual incest with other adults all deserve various forms of social censor or punishment or both. But there’s no evidence they pose public dangers beyond those associated with these relatively minor criminal offenses. None of these behaviors have been linked to child molestation or violent sexual assaults anywhere in the academic literature. Requiring such offenders to remain on registries wastes public resources, ruins lives, and does nothing to improve public safety.
As with other people who commit crimes, it’s unfair and unjust to brand all sex offenders as social pariahs for the rest of their lives, particularly since they have lower recidivism rates than other types of felons.Forcing convicted sex offenders to the margins of society also tends to remove them from the orbit of family, friends and houses of worship, making it more likely that they will turn to crime again. For instance, it’s difficult to see why sex offenders should be automatically denied commercial driver’s licenses or barred from working as insurance agents. Aside from obvious restrictions on working with children and perhaps carrying out certain medical tasks, most restrictions on sex offenders should be tailored to fit individual circumstances and levels of dangerousness. Restrictions on professional licensing should be set to fit the specific sex offense, rather than applied to every person convicted of any sexually oriented crime.
Moreover, the lack of any evidence that public notification reduces crime, coupled with its negative effects on property values, counsels in favor of restricting the practice. Notification helps attach an unnecessary stigma even to those convicted of only minor sex offenses. A person who sexually gropes a stranger once has done something wrong and perhaps traumatizing, but he does not pose the same public danger as a murderer, who is not required to notify his neighbors of his prior conviction. Yet, because of registries, he faces a greater public stigma than a murderer. Eliminating public notification completely would face huge political hurdles and, given the ease with which information already on the Internet can be preserved, is probably impossible anyway. The most practical change might be limiting mandatory community notification and Internet recording to actual predators over the age of 21 who have sexually assaulted young children. Even in these cases, the value of notification likely comes more from the fact that the public wants it than from any demonstrable benefit it actually provides.
IT IS TIME TO START ADDRESSING THE REAL PROBLEM…
The practice of requiring sex offenders to register with law-enforcement officials is effective and has contributed to a sizable drop in sex offenses committed against children in the United States. Notifying the public of sex offenders, on the other hand, is ineffective and should be limited if not eliminated. The registries that exist, furthermore, do tremendous harm to some people who, although clearly guilty of various wrongs, do not pose a significant threat to children or anyone else in society.
The nation needs to reconsider its headlong rush into ever-expanding sex-offender registration and target the registries more carefully at the most genuinely dangerous individuals. Certain petty restrictions should be dropped and many individuals should be deleted from the registries in order to minimize unnecessary damage to individuals and communities and to allow law enforcement to focus on the most dangerous offenders. In certain cases, serious punishments, including indefinite civil commitment for certain offenders, also ought to be expanded. Efforts to keep sex offenders out of schools also deserve expansion.
More than two decades after her initial success in establishing Minnesota’s registry, Patty Wetterling — now a political activist who has run twice for Congress — expresses second thoughts about the registries she fought to establish. While she still supports the idea of the registries, Wetterling thinks they have gone too far and should drop juveniles and many other categories of offenders. “We can’t just keep locking [sex offenders] up,” she told Minneapolis’s City Pages in 2013. “That doesn’t change the problem.”