Abolish the sex offender registry

It’s not easy to come to the defense of nonviolent sex offenders. Any lawmaker that considers reforming the excessively-punitive registry will start out on the losing side of the public’s perception. For starters, there is an erroneous assumption that the registry entirely comprises of rapists and pedophiles. On top of that, sex offender registration has become somewhat of a throwaway issue. Who cares about anyone on the registry? They did something, and that’s their punishment.

However, our inability to think critically about sex offender registration is causing undue legal and moral repercussions upon convicted people. We should care because many offenders were convicted under consensual circumstances that any reasonable society wouldn’t penalize in this way. All states have sex offender registries, as mandated by a series of federal laws in the 1990s, but each state has different opinions on what situations amount to a sex offense. Many situations do not at all fit the pathological predator theme that the public associates with the entire registry.

For example, the Department of Justice estimates that there are at least 89,000 minors on sex offender registries. Just process that for a second. Many of these offenses are nonviolent and fairly normative. Indecent exposure and sexting are some examples of teenage behavior that has landed defendents on the sex offender registry. Note the case of a 15-year-old in Pennsylvania who was charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography after taking explicit pictures of herself and sharing them. Or a couple of 14-year-old boys in New Jersey who pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-old boys. These may be stupid decisions, sure, but do they justify these kids being registered as sex offenders? Probably not.

The matter is complicated by the ages of consent in each state, which vary from 16 to 18. All states criminalize adults having sex with minors under the agreeable rationale that minors cannot give informed consent to adults. However, many states do not make exemptions for “close in age” couples who are both minors. That means two 17-year-olds in a state with an age of consent of 18, and no exemption, are at risk of committing a sex crime with each other.

Adults have been wronged by the registry as well. A man in Georgia had consensual oral sex with another man in 1997. That put him afoul of the state’s sodomy law, and he had to register as a sex offender up until 2012. A man in Florida was convicted and registered for having consensual sex with his girlfriend on a public beach. A 17-year-old man in Michigan, who landed on the registry for having consensual sex with another teenager, feared for his ability to achieve work, let alone date anyone. He committed suicide when he turned 20. At least 13 states require registration for public urination and 32 more for indecent exposure.

Being on the sex offender registry is ruinous. States have added countless legal stipulations that prohibit one thing or require another. Offenders have to inform police of their residency and workplace. They are barred from schools, parks, homeless shelters or even living with their own children. Their home addresses are usually publicly-accessible, making them a target for vigilantes who erroneously assume that all sex offenders are villainous.

A lot of this is anecdotal, but it serves as a broader discussion that we need to have about appropriately fitting punishments to crimes. Sex offender registration is too harsh for actions that were just stupid, rude or harmless. The registry is constitutionally dubious as well since it arguably amounts to double jeopardy when it subjects offenders to punishment beyond their sentencing.

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This begs the question: why abolish the entire registry, then? Why not just remove the less serious offenses? Frankly, there is no legal pathway to accomplish that. There is a jungle of state and municipal laws across the country that require registration for certain crimes. Repealing them all isn’t practical. The federal requirement for registries must be repealed. Then, each state should abolish their registries as they see fit.

Abolishing all registries means that we have to talk about the heinous parts of society: violent sex offenders. Let’s be clear, there is no excuse for sexual abuse and assault, and there never will be. Survivors deserve to be believed and protected. These are truths that we can all rally around.

But if we want to make good on those truths, then we need to be surgically precise with our laws. A criminal justice system that zeroes in on specific targets will do more to bring victims out of abusive relationships than casting a wide net that attempts to catch all.

The sex offender registry is premised under a largely outdated concept of sexual violence. When these registries were dreamed up in the 1990s, lawmakers were promoting the stereotype of the “super-predator”; vicious, serial degenerates who lurk around and ambush people. We now know that the overwhelming majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone the victim knows, including family members, acquaintances, partners and spouses.

This is important to note because it exposes how the registry fails to accomplish a reduction in sexual violence. It doesn’t correct for the institutional problems in workplaces and homes that allow for sexual misconduct to occur in the first place, nor is it a deterrent. Unlike conventional crime such as property theft, sexual abusers frequently delude themselves into thinking that their behavior isn’t illegal or even harmful to the victim. For offenders who are already paroled, research at EBP Society, a coalition of health and human services professionals, finds that the residency and employment restrictions placed on sex offenders decrease rehabilitative success. Rehabilitation is supposedly the goal that we’d want to achieve with any parolee.

Some argue that the community has a right to know where sex offenders live and work, so that they can be avoided. But this shifts the burden of enforcement onto the community, which is similar to the precarious sentiment that victims are personally responsible for not getting abused. Managing a sex offender’s safe re-entry into civic life is best handled by trained parole officers and mental health professionals.

What constitutes a sex crime? What are appropriate punishments? How can we prevent it? Can we rehabilitate offenders? These are the tough questions that need to be addressed in precise, targeted ways. The sex offender registry is a one-size-fits-all approach. If it’s not accomplishing our goals for a safer society, then there’s no reason to have it anymore.