Sex Offender Laws in the US September 11, End Registration of Juveniles, Residency Restrictions and Online Registries Acknowledgements Human Rights Watch would like to thank all of the survivors of sexual violence, former offenders and their families, social workers, advocates, law enforcement officials, and attorneys who shared their experiences and perspective with us for this report.
We are especially grateful to those who trusted us with very painful and personal stories. Corinne Carey, former researcher for the US Program, undertook the original research for this report.
Ian Gorvin, deputy director of the Program Office, and Aisling Reidy, senior legal counsel, edited the report. Robert Prentky, and Dr. Levenson for providing guidance and insights in helping us to shape the research and writing of this report. Wetterling also reviewed the report. Human Rights Watch would also like to thank Peter B. Summary The reality is that sex offenders are a great political target, but that doesn't mean any law under the sun is appropriate.
There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence. In February she was abducted from her home in Florida, raped, and buried alive by a stranger, a next-door neighbor who had been twice convicted of molesting children. Over the past decade, several horrific crimes like Jessica's murder have captured massive media attention and fueled widespread fears that children are at high risk of assault by repeat sex offenders.
Politicians have responded with a series of laws, including the sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws that are the subject of this report. Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of specified crimes that involve sexual conduct to register with law enforcement-regardless of whether the crimes involved children. So-called "Megan's Laws" establish public access to registry information, primarily by mandating the creation of online registries that provide a former offender's criminal history, current photograph, current address, and other information such as place of employment.
In many states everyone who is required to register is included on the online registry. A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance typically to 2, feet of places where children gather-for example, schools, playgrounds, and daycare centers. Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws. They reflect a deep public yearning for safety in a world that seems increasingly threatening.
Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime prevention measures is a core governmental obligation.
Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good: The registration laws are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk; Under community notification laws, anyone anywhere can access online sex offender registries for purposes that may have nothing to do with public safety.
Harassment of and violence against registrants have been the predictable result; In many cases, residency restrictions have the effect of banishing registrants from entire urban areas and forcing them to live far from their homes and families. The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them.
Even assuming some public safety benefit, however, the laws can be reformed to reduce their adverse effects without compromising that benefit. Registration laws should be narrowed in scope and duration.
Publicly accessible online registries should be eliminated, and community notification should be accomplished solely by law enforcement officials. Blanket residency restrictions should be abolished. Public Safety and Mistaken Premises Proponents of sex offender registration and community notification believe they protect children in two ways: Advocates for residency restrictions believe they will limit offenders' access to children and their temptation or ability to commit new crimes.
While these beliefs may seem intuitively correct, they are predicated on several widely shared but nonetheless mistaken premises. Given these faulty underpinnings, it is not surprising that there is little evidence that the laws have in fact reduced the threat of sexual abuse to children or others. Sex offender laws are based on preventing the horrific crimes that inspired them-but the abduction, rape, and murder of a child by a stranger who is a previously convicted sex offender is a rare event.
The laws offer scant protection for children from the serious risk of sexual abuse that they face from family members or acquaintances. Indeed, people children know and trust are responsible for over 90 percent of sex crimes against them. In addition, sex offender laws are predicated on the widespread assumption that most people convicted of sex offenses will continue to commit such crimes if given the opportunity.
Some politicians cite recidivism rates for sex offenders that are as high as percent. In fact, most three out of four former sex offenders do not reoffend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders. Patty Wetterling, a prominent child safety advocate who founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation after her son was abducted in , recently told Human Rights Watch, I based my support of broad-based community notification laws on my assumption that sex offenders have the highest recidivism rates of any criminal.
But the high recidivism rates I assumed to be true do not exist. It has made me rethink the value of broad-based community notification laws, which operate on the assumption that most sex offenders are high-risk dangers to the community they are released into. Over-breadth of the Registration Requirement The justifications offered for sex offender laws focus on sexually violent offenders. Yet people who have not committed violent or coercive offenses may nonetheless be required to register as sex offenders and be subject to community notification and residency restrictions.
For example, in many states, people who urinate in public, teenagers who have consensual sex with each other, adults who sell sex to other adults, and kids who expose themselves as a prank are required to register as sex offenders. Brandon was a senior in high school when he met a year-old girl on a church youth trip. With her parents' blessing, they began to date, and openly saw each other romantically for almost a year.
When it was disclosed that consensual sexual contact had occurred, her parents pressed charges against Brandon and he was convicted of sexual assault and placed on the sex offender registry in his state. As a result, Brandon was fired from his job. He will be on the registry and publicly branded as a sex offender for the rest of his life. In his mother's words, "I break down in tears several times a week. I know there are violent sexual predators that need to be punished, but this seems like punishment far beyond reasonable for what my son did.
Indeed, legislators are steadily increasing the duration of registration requirements: Yet former sex offenders are less and less likely to reoffend the longer they live offense-free. Unfortunately, only a few states require or permit periodic individualized assessments of the risk to the community a former offender may pose before requiring initial or continued registration and community notification.
Unrestricted Access to Registry Information If former offenders simply had to register their whereabouts with the police, the adverse consequences for them would be minimal. But online sex offender registries brand everyone listed on them with a very public "scarlet letter" that signifies not just that they committed a sex offense in the past, but that by virtue of that fact they remain dangerous. With only a few exceptions, states do not impose any "need to know" limitations on who has access to the registrant's information.
With a national registry including every state registrant's online profile due to be complete by , information about previously convicted sex offenders will be available to anyone anywhere in the country, without restriction.
Most registries simply indicate the statutory name of the crime of which a person was convicted, for example, "indecent liberties with a child. When people see my picture on the state sex offender registry they assume I am a pedophile.
I have been called a baby rapist by my neighbors; feces have been left on my driveway; a stone with a note wrapped around it telling me to "watch my back" was thrown through my window, almost hitting a guest. What the registry doesn't tell people is that I was convicted at age 17 of sex with my year-old girlfriend, that I have been offense-free for over a decade, that I have completed my therapy, and that the judge and my probation officer didn't even think I was at risk of reoffending.
My life is in ruins, not because I had sex as a teenager, and not because I was convicted, but because of how my neighbors have reacted to the information on the internet. Former offenders included on online sex offender registries endure shattered privacy, social ostracism, diminished employment and housing opportunities, harassment, and even vigilante violence.
Their families suffer as well. Registrants and their families have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through their home windows, and feces left on their front doorsteps.
They have been assaulted, stabbed, and had their homes burned by neighbors or strangers who discovered their status as a previously convicted sex offender. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed two in and two in by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide, including a teenager who was required to register after he had exposed himself to girls on their way to gym class. Violence directed at registrants has injured others.
The children of sex offenders have been harassed by their peers at school, and wives and girlfriends of offenders have been ostracized from social networks and at their jobs. Residency Restrictions Among laws targeting sex offenders living in the community, residency restrictions may be the harshest as well as the most arbitrary. The laws can banish registrants from their already established homes, keep them from living with their families, and make entire towns off-limits to them, forcing them to live in isolated rural areas.
For example, former sex offenders in Miami, Florida have been living under bridges, one of the few areas not restricted for them by the residency restriction laws of that city. There is no evidence that prohibiting sex offenders from living near where children gather will protect children from sexual violence.
Indeed, the limited research to date suggests the contrary: A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that individuals who committed another sex crime against a child made contact with their victim through a social relationship.
Moreover, the laws apply to all registered sex offenders regardless of whether their prior crimes involved children. It is hard to fathom what good comes from prohibiting a registered offender whose victim was an adult woman from living near a school bus stop. Stories of the senseless impact of residency restrictions are legion. For example, Georgia's residency restriction law has forced a year-old married woman to move from her home because it is too close to a daycare center.
She is registered as a sex offender because she had oral sex with a year-old when she was Some lawmakers admit to another purpose for residency restriction laws.
Georgia State House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, who sponsored the state's law banning registrants from living within 1, feet of places where children gather, stated during a floor debate, "My intent personally is to make [residency restrictions] so onerous on those that are convicted of [sex] offenses they will want to move to another state. For those who do pose a threat to public safety, they should be able to reside in communities where they can receive the supervision and treatment they need, rather than be forced to move to isolated rural areas or become homeless.
Juvenile Offenders In most states, children age 18 and younger who are convicted of sex offenses can be subject to registration, community notification, and residency restrictions. The recently passed federal Adam Walsh Act requires states to register children as young as Some of their offenses are indeed serious-for example, raping much younger children. But children are also subjected to sex offender laws for conduct that, while frowned upon, does not suggest a danger to the community, including consensual sex, "playing doctor," and exposing themselves.
Some of the conduct reflects the impulsiveness and perhaps difficulty with boundaries that many teenagers experience and that most will outgrow with maturity.
In some cases it seems nothing short of irrational to label children as sex offenders. Human Rights Watch spoke with a father whose year-old son was adjudicated for touching the genitals of his five-year-old cousin. He told us, "My son doesn't really understand what sex is, so it's hard to help him understand why he has to register as a sex offender.
Although there is little statistical research on recidivism by youth sex offenders, the studies that have been done suggest recidivism rates are quite low. For example, in one study only 4 percent of youth arrested for a sex crime recidivated. Research also indicates that most adult offenders were not formerly youth offenders: Applying registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws to juvenile offenders does nothing to prevent crimes by the 90 percent of adults who were not convicted of sex offenses as juveniles.