This week I changed my mind about America’s sex offender laws. Sure, they’re popular and were passed by Congress and state legislatures in response terrible crimes.
But no law can cure all ills and the national sex offender registry appears to be in urgent need of reform.
In recent years we’ve had a scorched-earth debate about sex offenses led by the voices of fear and outrage. On the nightly news and in shows such as “Law and Order,” Americans have been fed this image of “stranger danger” – the creepy older guy who preys on children.
But the vast majority of assaults – as many as 90% – are committed by people who know the victims.
In her new book, “Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us”, Sociology professor Emily Horowitz argues that Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law and some other recent acts are examples of over-reach and a sweeping one-sized-fits-all approach to a very complex problem. Other researchers have also argued against moral panic that treats all sex offenders as monsters.
Dangerous adult predators are lumped together with teenagers and adolescents who were convicted of fondling or even sexting.
“We’re in the middle of a sex panic that’s been going on for decades now,” says Emily on the latest episode of our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?”
Today there are more than 800,000 names on the ever-growing national sex offender registry. “Those are people who are publicly listed on the internet with all of their personal information and photographs. These are all people who’ve served time, completed probation and parole.”
Until we spoke with Emily I believed that public shaming and a registry for sexual predators was a good idea. I still do – in some cases. But far too many people are on the list.
The national registry, which continues to grow each year despite a decline in sex offenses against children, may be an egregious violation of individual liberties, especially for the large share of offenders who were under 18 when they broke the law. They could stay on the list for the rest of their lives.
“It makes emotional sense. but it doesn’t make practical sense,” says Emily. “There is no other crime where people are listed on a public registry.” This includes those convicted of murder and assault.
“The premise underlying sex offender registries is that people who commit sex crimes are different from all other criminals, because they’re predatory, they cannot be stopped, and they’re uncontrollable so they need to be listed for life.”
“But that’s not true,” Emily insists. A quarter of the people on the registry committed crimes as juveniles. “They are particularly responsive to treatment. There are very few who are violent pedophiles.”
“Child sexual abuse is very complicated and it happens most often within the family and among people known to the children so these laws are totally ineffective.”
The recidivism rate for sex offenders is not higher than for other crimes.”
Among the fixes we discussed:
– Reform the national sex offenders registry, and include only the most violent offenders. Most people on the national registry were convicted of a single offense.
– Money now spent to maintain the registry should be diverted to mental and social services. .
– Educate children and parents. Encourage discussion about sex offenses and how to report them.
– Help people who’ve served their time re-build their lives. “You are much less likely to re-offend if you have a stable job and a stable home,” says Emily Horowitz.
I don’t agree with all that she says. Her focus on the treatment of offenders does not fully take into account the victims of the most horrendous crimes. Their stories must continue to be told.
But a strong case has been made for registry reform. In its current state, the lives of many families face ruin. As a result victims of sex crimes, who know the perpetrators, may be very reluctant to report them to law enforcement.