US: Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good
The Human Rights Watch published a 146-page report on September 11, 2007. This group of "human rights defenders" spent over two years preparing this report which cites many U.S. experts in child and public safety.
Their summary of this report, their ultimate recommendations, as well as a URL to the full report is listed below:
In many states, registration covers everyone convicted of a sexual crime, which can range from child rape to consensual teenage sex, and regardless of their potential future threat to children. Unfettered public access to online sex-offender registries with no “need-to-know” restrictions exposes former offenders to the risk that individuals will act on this information in irresponsible and even unlawful ways. There is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence. Residency restrictions banish former offenders from entire towns and cities, forcing them to live far from homes, families, jobs and treatment, and hindering law-enforcement supervision. Residency restrictions are counterproductive to public safety and harmful to former offenders.
Sex offender laws reflect public concern that children are at grave risk of sexual abuse by strangers who are repeat offenders. As the report documents, however, the real risks children face are quite different: government statistics indicate that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members or trusted authority figures, and by someone who has not previously been convicted of a sex offense.
In addition, the laws reflect the widely shared but erroneous belief that “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” Authoritative studies indicate that three out of four adult offenders do not reoffend. Moreover, treatment can be effective even for people who have committed serious sex crimes.
“Politicians didn’t do their homework before enacting these sex offender laws,” said Sarah Tofte, US program researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead they have perpetuated myths about sex offenders and failed to deal with the complex realities of sexual violence against children.”
Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of a vast array of crimes that involve sexual conduct to register their addresses and other information with law enforcement agencies. Because registration requirements are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, there are more than 600,000 registered sex offenders in the US, including individuals convicted of non-violent crimes such as consensual sex between teenagers, prostitution, and public urination, as well as those who committed their only offenses decades ago.
“The public believes everyone on a sex offender registry is dangerous,” said Fellner. “But what’s the point of requiring registration by a teenager who exposed himself as a high-school prank or even by someone who molested a child 30 years ago?”
Most states do not make individualized risk assessments before requiring registration. Nor do they offer former offenders a way to get off the registry upon a showing of rehabilitation or years of lawful behavior.
Human Rights Watch found there is scant justification for ever registering juvenile offenders, even those who have committed serious offenses. Most are likely to outgrow such behavior, particularly if given treatment. Recidivism rates for juvenile offenders are extremely low, and few adult offenders ever committed sex crimes as youth.
In “No Easy Answers,” Human Rights Watch recommends that registration requirements be limited to people assessed to pose a real risk of committing another serious sex offense.
Because of community notification laws, all states now have publicly accessible online sex offender registries that provide a former offender’s criminal history, photograph, current address, and often other information such as license plate numbers.