The Safety of Sex Offender Registry
Today’s society is centered around violence and crimes, most of which involve children. With the wellbeing of children at stake people wanted to create something that provided protection against the cruel world. In people’s rush to provide protection they created the sex offender registry. On impulse they added more limits and laws that ended up agitating the offenders and thus created less of a registry used for protecting children but more of a registry that decreases the safety of the public.
Before the registry was created multiple high publicity cases involving sex offenders and children getting harmed occurred. The first crime that happened involved a young boy named Jacob Wetterling. In October of 1989 11 year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped at gunpoint and never seen again. After this happened Jacob’s mother, Patty, realized that there was not a database that showed possible suspects — most notably convicted sex offenders. In response to this Patty was able to get the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act to pass, in 1994 (Zakis). Quickly following the passing of Jacob’s law, 7 year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had previous convictions for the sexual assault of a child. This crime led to the state of New Jersey to pass a law the required anyone “convicted, adjudicated delinquent or found not guilty by reason of insanity for commission of a sex offense” to register with local law enforcement (Zakis). Two years later congress passed a Federal Megan’s law that required that states must provide community notification of sex offender notification (Zakis).
Although those laws allowed people to start to feel protected another child was abducted and murdered. Six year-old Adam Walsh was riding his bike one day when he was abducted and subsequently murdered. When looking at the “registry” his mom realized that there was a sex offender living in a house along the route Walsh took. In light of this heinous crime the congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006. This law replaced both Jacob’s law and Megan’s law. Adam’s law created a national sex offender registry and mandated that all states comply with at least title 1 of the act (Zakis). The registry created was titled the Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act (also known as the SORNA). This act established a three tiered system; third tiered offenders are required to update their information every three months for life (Zakis). The SORNA also created the National Sex Offender public website which had almost five million visits and 772 millions hits by 2008 (Zakis).
Including the addition of the Walsh law, the registry went through many changes as it evolved to the one we have today. The system that this information came from is the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). When looking through this system it was discovered that at first the information regarding sex offenders was confidential and could not be given out at all. With this being the case the police could locate, investigate, and apprehend more easily seeing as they are the only people who know about the offender. As time went on Megan’s law changed things and the community started getting notified when an offender moved in. The act of notifying the community about sex offenders went from using newspapers to using the internet, which is more widespread allowing for more people to see it (Prescott). At this point it could be argued that the registry is helpful because it provided information to the police and allowed them to locate offenders easier. While that may have been the case earlier on when the registry was new it quickly changed after a couple of publicized cases. In light of these cases the registry made information readily available allowing anyone to gain said information on any offender in the community effectively targeting them (Prescott).
With all of these change put into place more and more limitations were put on offenders. Those limitations in questioned included where they could live and work. Offenders were not allowed to live near schools, churches, parks, amusement parks, and public pools, etc (Zakus). This effectively prohibits offenders from living anywhere near where children congregate. Offenders also are not allowed to work anywhere kids are present. They cannot work in schools, amusement parks, etc. Essentially they cannot work where they are prohibited to live. The goal of this was to be able to provide children with safe places to live their life without the dangers of offenders lurking around.
Those who have to register include “all classifications of rapes and sexual abuse, incest, sodomy and first-degree unlawful transaction with a minor (illegal sex act) are included in the registry. People convicted of sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor, are not required to register” (Napier 1). The length of time that the offender has to stay on the register varys from state to state. “At least eight states require sex offenders to register for life. Most other states require registration for 10 to 15 years to life, depending on the registrant’s crime. Periodic updates are required in most cases, either quarterly or yearly—unless the registrant is homeless” (Zakis). If the registrant is homeless there are specific things they have to do. In most states homeless registrants have to re-register every seven to thirty days, while in other states registrants must re-register every three days (Zakis).
Although there is a sex offender registry, sex offense arrests are uncommon. Since arrests are uncommon that means that the arrest times take longer than normal. The normal arrest period for other crimes is one day but sex offense arrest periods are considerably longer as false information begin put into the registry is more common. (Napier 18). Not only are arrests low but the recidivism rate, the likelihood of someone reoffending, is low. It’s said that recidivism rates were lower before the registry and experts say that “Empirical evidence and objective data are beginning to confirm what experts have said for many years: Sex-offender registration and restriction laws do not reduce recidivism, and they do not make communities safer. In fact, these laws may actually increase recidivism and decrease public safety” (Zakis). This in itself is actually a real thing as all the registry does is make offenders feel like they have no possibility of living a normal life.
With all this considered the effectiveness varies as there are two different kinds of registries: public and nonpublic. As the name suggests the public registry is available for all to see and provides them with all of the information regarding the offenders registered. The nonpublic registry is only available to those in a position of power or in law enforcement. This itself is fairly effective as it keeps the offenders out of the public eye and lets them live without being under the watchful gaze of the whole community.
The most pressing problems of the registry have to deal with the public registry as there is more room for error when it comes to the public being involved. When looking at the limitations set on where the offenders can live there are not many places they can choose. Most places create things called pop-up parks and place them throughout the city causing the offenders to be homeless as the parks prohibit them from living there. This is a problem as being homeless means not having a steady address. The only rules set in place for being homeless are how many times they are required to re-register and input a new address. The dangers this can cause include not having an actual address for the offender, this means that if said offender commits a crime it will be harder to find them as they do not have a home to go to. When they are homeless they can be in the areas that they are prohibited from living in because they are not technically living there but instead passing through. This creates danger for the children in the area as law enforcement does not have tabs on the homeless offenders which can lead to the offenders harming the children and then hiding.
Recidivism rates increases are said to be caused by the offenders feeling like they have no chance at living a normal life. A Justice Perverted: Sex Offender Law, Psychology, and Public Policy, forensic psychologist and SUNY-Buffalo Law School professor Charles Patrick Ewing says that “Laws that restrict the residences, workplaces, and movements of sex offenders also appear to do little if anything to reduce recidivism and may have the unintended negative consequence of making sex offender recidivism more likely because they engender hopelessness and homelessness in some offenders, impede their contact with social support networks in the community, and create disincentives for pro-social behavior” (Zakis). This makes them feel like there is no hope of trying to live a normal life and usually increases chances of reoffending. Now it is understandable that people do not want to let offenders back into the community because of the crimes they have committed, but if they think that is the way to protect their kids then they are looking at it wrong. When they look at it like that they are letting their hatred of the offenders cloud their judgement and in this situation that is exactly what should be avoided.
In addition to not feeling like they are living a normal life they also have to look out for vigilanties. Many people have extremely strong opinions concerning sex offenders and those strong opinions can lead to vigilantism. Vigilante action can become very intense as “Registrants [spoke] of having glass bottles thrown through their windows; being ‘jumped from behind’ and physically assaulted while the assailants yelled ‘You like little children, right?’; having garbage thrown on their lawn; people repeatedly ringing the doorbell and pounding on the sides of the house late at night; being struck from behind with a crowbar after being yelled at by the assailant that ‘People like you who are under Megan’s Law should be kept in jail. They should never let you out. People like you should die. When you leave tonight, I am gonna kill you’…. ” (Zakis). although this can be argued as making sure that they do not commit the same crime again that is simply not true. Experts say that this just increases the probability of re-offending.
Not only does vigilantism cause problems but offenders are also being ostracized. People decided that the best way to protect the children in the neighborhood was to keep them as far away from offenders as possible. This includes ostracizing them from the rest of the community. Excluding them from the community is one of the worst cases of action. Being excluded further explores that thought of never living a normal life, and not only that but no one is paying attention to them effectively leaving them to their free will. In addition to the ostracism of the offender the offenders’ family is also facing vigilante action and ostracism. It is said that “The effect of the public registry on the family of registered offenders cannot be overlooked, From shaming to banishment to outright violence, these family members are facing harsh treatment daily simply because they are the family member of registered offenders” (Zakis). Innocent people are being attacked simply because they are related to the offender. People are being attacked for crimes they did not commit, furthermore this can anger the offender as their family is being attacked leading to more acts of violence from them.
Another issue is that some offenders do not input correct information or they leave some out. Data shows that “While most registrants did have complete information provided, 43 percent of registrants did not have photographs with information, and one in twelve (8.2%) of registrants had an address of ‘unknown’ listed. Problems of missing and inaccurate data were most acute for registrants from a metropolitan county: 10.5 percent had ‘unknown’ addresses, 10.5 percent listed addresses that turned out to be commercial locations, and 5.4 percent had addresses that did not exist” (Tewksbury). without certain information it is near impossible to track and keep an eye on offenders. This can be a problem if a sex crime were to happen and the suspect did not put the correct information or left out pieces of said information. That means it will take longer to find and arrest the offender giving them more time to get away or commit more crimes.
Not only that but the limitations put in place only stop offenders from living near places children congregate. That means that offenders can live in a neighborhood where several kids live as long as there are no schools, parks, or etc. near by. This is where the pocket parks come into play. Those parks keep offenders away from neighborhoods where several kids live. Now sure it protects the children but to what extent? These parks can render offenders homeless and it has already been stated how well homelessness involving sex offenders works. It seems that in our efforts to protect children from the bad in the world we have somehow made it worse. It is almost like a case of overcorrecting, trying so hard to stop something but doing to much and making it worse.
Everything said up until this point can only be put into play if the offenders have been reported but that is where more problems come in.Sexual offender can be put into three categories; close, near, and strangers (Prescott). The categories are separated based on the familiarity of the victim in reference to the culprit. Those who fall into the ‘close’category are family friends or family themselves. This group commits offences the most as the victims are normally too scared to report them letting them get off of the hook. The ‘near’ group includes people like neighbors or people the victim sees everyday but does not know very well. This group commits the second most amount of offences. Those in the near group are more likely to be reported than the close group but still not a lot. And, finally the strangers. This group commits the least amount of offences but these are the ones people hear about all of the time. This is the group that created the registry as everytime a stranger is involved in a sexual offence it is always a high publicity case. This causes problems as most cases are not reported meaning that there are more offenders out there but they are not known so it will take longer to catch them. This shows that the registry is not as up to date as many people would think leaving major gaps in the system.
According to everything listed above the registry seems like a terrible idea. Although it does cause some problems it does have some redeeming qualities. The registry was created because of rare publicity cases the caused people to go into a frenzy. This registry was created to protect the children and for a while it provided people with a false sense of security making them feel protected (Mayse). Now the public registry did work for a while until people started adding more and more laws to it which caused it to become muddled.
When addressing the problems the registry has it mostly involves the public registry, but the nonpublic registry is not talked about enough. Surprisingly the nonpublic registry is more effective as the offenders feel like they have a chance of living a normal life. Experts say decreasing the recidivism rate means successful reintegration into a community because they feel like they can be a normal human meaning they have no need to continue committing crimes (Zakis). The nonpublic registry also makes it to where people do not know who in their neighborhood is an offender so they do not have to worry about vigilante action or about being ostracized. It also protects the offenders family so innocent people are not hurt because of the actions a family member has committed.
Overall there seems to be cons with both registries. The public has many more problems and the nonpublic keeps the community from knowing who is living among them. It seems that the registry is not as effective as it seems. If they wanted to make it more effective without changing a whole bunch of things it seems that the best course of action would be to convert all registries to nonpublic. It seems to be that if they wanted to create a truly effective registry they would need to combine aspects of both registries and give the offender a chance to be normal human again. All in all a lot of work needs to be done to the registry to get it to the standards that it was based on– protecting children from the monsters of the world. This is not something that can be fixed overnight, data has to be examined and tests need to be run, but one thing is for sure, the current registry is not safe it needs many things done with it and until them it should not be as heavily relied upon as it is now.
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