The system for punishing sex offenders is broken

Crime, Rights

Think “sex offender,” and you probably picture a creepy guy who tries to lure children into his van with candy. But that’s not the whole picture. The sex offender registry, which currently stands at over 850,000 registered sex offenders, is comprised of many people who should not be lumped into the same category as violent sex offenders and pedophiles. People like teenager Zach Anderson.

19-year-old Anderson had sex with a teenage girl he met through a dating app. The girl said she was 17 – above the age of consent – but was actually 14. Anderson was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 5 years’ probation, and 25 years on the sex offender registries in both Indiana and Michigan. The 14-year-old apologized for lying, and her mother even went to court to say that Anderson should not be put on the sex offender list. But the judge was not lenient. For the next 25 years, Anderson will have to abide by restrictions on where he goes, what he does and how he lives his life.

Cases like these are making people reconsider the way the sex offender registry works, and wonder whether it’s time for a change in the law.

The sex offender registry is becoming diluted

The sex offender registry is intended to improve public safety by helping law enforcement officers keep tabs on serious criminals, and by giving families access to information on convicted sex offenders in their neighborhoods. Each state maintains its own registry, and sites created by the Department of Justice access state registries for research and data gathering.

Sex registries were greatly expanded in 1994 by the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, otherwise known as Jacob’s Law. After her 11-year-old son Jacob was kidnapped in 1989, Patty Wetterling was instrumental in advocating for the law, which requires every state to create and maintain a sex offender registry. But now, Wetterling is calling for reforms. She says the list, originally meant to keep track of the most severe offenders, has grown so large and diluted that it no longer functions the way it was intended.

One group “diluting” the list is teenagers. Even if the sex was consensual, if one partner is underage and the judge decides not to employ Romeo and Juliet laws, the older teen can be labeled a sex offender. Other crimes that can land someone on the registry include public urination and taking naked photos of yourself if you’re a minor.

Far from being a list of only the worst, the sex offender registry is filled with people who, many argue, shouldn’t be there in the first place.

How being on the sex offender registry affects day-to-day life

The consequences of being labeled a sex offender include restrictions on where one can live and work.

A convicted sex offender is likely not allowed to live or be within a certain distance of areas like playgrounds and schools. He or she must register in person with the government within 3 days of changing their name, address, employment situation or student status, and they must appear in person to check in with law enforcement regularly for at least a decade. Failure to properly register can lead to fines and up to 10 years in prison. Many end up homeless or living in colonies with other sex offenders.

The vast majority of employers refuse to hire anyone with sex-offender status, no matter what the offense was, and depending on the state, sex offenders are barred from working in certain jobs. These range from the ostensibly reasonable—a pre-school teacher, say—to the nonsensical – like a plumber.

Why it’s time to change sex offender registry laws

For the past 30 years, the attitude towards sex offender legislation has been “more and harsher.” Occasional attempts to scale back have been unsuccessful; presumably, politicians don’t want to be seen as weak on sex offenders.

But there are good reasons to change the laws. For one, they were built on faulty assumptions. One was that sex offenders have near-total rates of reoffending – once a sex offender, always a sex offender – but a government report found the recidivism rate among all sex offenders to be 5.3%. The other assumption was that offenders were strangers, but in reality they are far more likely to already know the victim, if not live in the same house. These and other myths have helped create the laws as they are now.

In addition, people pleading guilty have no way of knowing what the full scope of consequences will be down the road. Because registration is considered a civil regulatory scheme, the requirements for registration can change as the law changes. So a man may be convicted of a crime and told by the judge that he’ll need to register with law enforcement for the next 15 years. But the judge is not imposing that sentence, merely explaining that registration is a necessary condition of conviction. Hence, if the law changes the minimums from 15 years to 25 years for that particular crime, the convicted man will need to register for 25 years. People convicted of other classes of crimes do not experience such changes.

Finally, keeping track of the whereabouts and probation status of hundreds of thousands of people puts a huge burden on law enforcement and strains resources that could be used for other public safety concerns.

Proposed changes to sex offender registry laws

In discussing Zach Anderson’s case, clinical social worker Jill Levenson seeks changes to the laws and believes that, among other things, juveniles should be taken off the registries, and sex offenders should be put into risk categories based on how likely it is they will reoffend. She also proposes allowing offenders who pose a lower risk to petition for removal from the registry.

Changes will need to happen on a state level. California, one of the first states to create sex offender registry, may lead the way for other states to creating more livable laws. In March, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation made changes to “Jessica’s Law,” announcing it would no longer require all sex offenders to live further than 2,000 feet from a school, which made it difficult for offenders to find suitable housing.

The sex offender registry does have a place. But it’s time to change the laws so that the ramifications are in line with the severity of the crime.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.