The Best Ideas for Reforming Sex Offender Registries

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 15 2014 7:14 AM

Reforming the Registry

The best ideas for fixing sex offender laws.

sex offender registry.
Stereotypes about people in sex offender registries might finally be starting to release their stranglehold on public policy.

Photo by Comstock/Thinkstock

Since 1994, when Congress first ordered states to create sex offender registries, the laws in the United States about sex crimes have steadily ratcheted up. We now have what experts say is the most draconian regime in the world. As we’ve tried to show in Slate this week, legislators have repeatedly expanded the definition of a sex offender, extended the periods of time for which offenders must register, and toughened the consequences of registration. And they have done all this even though these laws rest on flawed stereotypes, not solid evidence.

Now, some parts of government—including law enforcement—are starting to urge change. A report by the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan organization funded in part by the states, noted that “common myths about sex offenders continue to influence laws.” The report concluded that “there is little empirical proof that sex offender registries and notification make communities safer.” The California Sex Offender Management Board, which includes a district attorney, police officers, and corrections officials, went even further earlier this year, saying that “the registry has, in some ways, become counterproductive to improving public safety.” The board called for “overhauling” the system to treat varying groups of sex offenders differently, based on their risks of reoffending. “When everyone is viewed as posing a significant risk, the ability for law enforcement and the community to differentiate between who is truly high risk and more likely to reoffend becomes impossible,” the board said.

Yet, despite these inroads, the political will to rein in sex offender registries is rare, if not absent. For example, the 1,500-plus sex offender bills introduced by state legislators in 2007 and 2008 reflected a “clear trend” toward harsher penalties, according to another report by the Council of State Governments. Efforts in the opposite direction have often been doomed. Take Missouri. State lawmakers passed a bill to remove juvenile offenders (those who committed sex offenses when they were 18 or younger) from the state registry’s website and to allow them to petition for removal from police department sex offender lists. Remarkably, the bill passed 153-0 in the state House and 28-4 in the Senate. And then Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it. “The leadership of the House may be ready to help violent sex offenders hide from the public and law enforcement, but their victims, and the millions of Missourians who use these websites to help keep their families safe, are not,” he said.

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To reformers, the failure to pass meaningful reforms shows how hard it remains for lawmakers to resist public demands to crack down on a group that is simply reviled. “We want to vilify these people, because they’re easy to hate,” Patty Wetterling, whose son Jacob was kidnapped at age 11 and remains missing nearly 25 years later, told me in an interview last month. Media coverage still fuels this impulse. “High-profile cases involving sex offenders continue to dominate the news” and “understandably shape the public perception of sex offenders,” according to the Council of State Governments report. The result, the report concluded, is that “lawmakers face an arduous task” if they try to push smarter, not tougher, policies. Another report from the Center for Sex Offender Management, a research group funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, also concluded that public perceptions “pose a significant challenge.”

In California, no legislator has yet introduced a bill to implement the state board recommendations I mentioned above. For example, while California now requires lifetime registration for all offenders—regardless of the risk they pose—the board called for restricting lifetime registration to high-risk groups such as sexually violent predators, kidnappers, and repeat offenders. Nonviolent offenders would be subject to a 10-year registration requirement, absent individualized factors that make them appear higher risk. In an email to me, Brenda Crowding, an official with the board, tried to sound sanguine about the lack of progress: “The Board is aware that evidenced-based, research-driven policy recommendations which change long established practice and legislation take time.”

It’s important to remember that failing to categorize offenders based on risk has consequences. When everyone is treated the same say, the system is inevitably overburdened—and dangerous offenders slip through the cracks. Jaycee Dugard, for example, was kidnapped at age 11 and held captive by a registered sex offender for 18 years in the face of multiple lapses in California’s registration system. “The police were so exhausted that really all they could do was take a look in the doorway when this woman was held captive since she was 11 in the backyard,” Nicole Pittman, an expert at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, told me. California ultimately paid Dugard and her family $20 million to settle claims that state authorities had failed to adequately supervise her kidnapper.

Abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach to offenders is just a first step toward broader reform. The Center for Sex Offender Management, the research group funded by the Department of Justice, has identified 20 best practices, including better treatment programs, more housing options upon release from prison, and distinct strategies for dealing with juvenile offenders. These ideas are actually grounded in science. The report cited research showing that treatment “is associated with reduced recidivism among sex offenders,” which is why ensuring its ability is vital to improving public safety. Similarly, the research demonstrated that “stabilization in the community contributes to decreases in reoffense rates.” And yet laws restricting where sex offenders can live have swept the nation in recent years, leaving homeless offenders to live under bridges. Finally, treating juvenile offenders the same as adults “has not been found to increase public safety, and it comes with potential unintended consequences, such as social and peer rejection, disruption in the development of a healthy identity, and other barriers to adjustment and stability.”

Beyond the policy changes, however, Wetterling also sees a need for something else, something more fundamental. “These are human beings who made a mistake. If we want them to succeed, we’re going to need to build a place for integrating them into our culture,” she told me. “Right now, you couldn’t walk into a church or community meeting and say, ‘I was a sex offender, but I’ve gone through treatment. I now have this lovely family, and I am so grateful to be a part of this community.’ There is no place for success stories. Nobody believes them.”

Brenda Jones, executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws, a volunteer advocacy group, understands the need for these changes firsthand. She has a family member who was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography in 2009. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and, once released, will likely have to register as a sex offender for 25 years. Looking ahead to his release, “I worry the most about will he find a place to feel accepted and stable, and will he will be able to maintain the medical and the mental health support that he has now in prison?” Jones told me. “Will he have any kind of quality of life? That’s what I’m fighting for.”

Chanakya Sethi is a graduate student at Yale Law School.

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