Convicted sex offenders may be the most demonized group in our country. And here’s the problem: when I say “convicted sex offenders” most people immediately think violent rapist or pedophile, and then they stop caring about the fairness of the laws. But there are many others who are branded with the label, and when the law brands someone as a sex offender, it imposes all sorts of restrictions to make being a positive member of society more difficult for them. Depending on the state, the restrictions can be imposed for years or decades after completing a criminal sentence. In some states, all sex offenders must comply with sex offender registration requirements for life, regardless of the crime committed.
To help keep an open mind when thinking about these laws, let’s consider who gets branded a sex offender. Of course, sometimes it is the rapist or predator, but other times it’s people who have done something far less egregious, like a teen convicted of sexting or of having consensual sex with a slightly younger peer. A recent study of college students found that 54% had sent or received sexually explicit texts when they were under the age of 18, most in the context of a romantic relationship. But even teens who can legally engage in consensual sex technically are producing, distributing or possessing child pornography if they consensually share sexually explicit photos of themselves. Most prosecutors don’t go after consensual teenage sexters, but some do. The New York Times reports that University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center estimated that in 2009, 7% of people arrested on suspicion of child pornography production were consensual teenage sexters. In North Carolina, two 16-year-olds in a consensual, romantic relationship exchanged naked selfies and were each charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor (themselves). The boy faced a possible ten years in prison and registering as a sex offender before pleading guilty to lesser charges.
So, with the knowledge that sex offender registration laws have far greater reach and relevance to the mainstream than you might think, let’s look at what happens to people listed on the sex offender registry. For starters, their names, addresses, places of work, and pictures are typically published and available online for all to see. It is hard enough for former convicts to get housing and jobs– the additional bias they face as registered sex offenders make finding basic shelter and employment nearly impossible. Registered sex offenders must check in with law enforcement regularly, and face serious penalties if they fail to do so. There are restrictions on where and with whom they may live, so that many are unable to return home or to live with relatives upon release from prison. Restrictions might include not living in public housing or in a house with an internet connection or a child under the age of 17, or not living, working or going within 1,000 feet of a park, school, daycare center, pool, library or playground. Those are serious limitations that require constant vigilance. There are also a slew of job restrictions imposed, varying from state to state, but significantly limiting the types of professions these ex-offenders can consider.
And here’s the real irony: sex offender registry laws don’t really accomplish much. Justice Department statistics show that 93% of sexually abused children are victimized by family members or acquaintances. Thus, public registration, which was designed to signal when predatory strangers are living close by, does nothing to protect against these kinds of assaults. Additionally, sex offenders actually reoffend far less often than other types of offenders, with recidivism rates between 4-10%, as compared with 68% across all crimes. So it seems that public safety concerns could be addressed with a far more nuanced approach to sex offender registration, rather than lumping all types of offenses into the same boat.
The bottom line is that the goal when a convicted sex offender is released from prison is for that person to not reoffend. But in order to accomplish that goal, we cannot continue to set convicts up to fail. In our blog post The Plight of Ex-Offenders we looked at all of the collateral consequences and obstacles ex-offenders face that cause our country’s recidivism rates to be so high. All of these are magnified for ex-sex offenders. Because the blanket sex offender registry serves no meaningful public safety role, it is time to rethink it.