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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Law - "Sex Offender Laws Have Gone Too Far"

Slate is running a series this week under that heading, written by Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi, and Jane Shim, all associated with Yale Law School. In the introduction, tracing the history of the laws, they begin with:

... the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Jacob’s Law used federal dollars to push every state to create a registry. It worked. Today, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have them. Since then, Congress has also passed several related pieces of legislation, including two major statutes. Megan’s Law, enacted in 1996, required that the police give the public access to some sex offender registry data, such as an offender’s name, photograph, and address. In 2006, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act toughened the standards for who must register and for how long, and it upped the consequences of registration by requiring, for example, periodic in-person visits to police.

The upshot, experts say, is that the United States has the most draconian sex registration laws in the world. As a result, the number of registrants across the nation has swelled—doubling and then doubling again to 750,000—in the two decades since Jacob’s Law passed. * * *

The logic behind the past push for registries rested on what seem like common sense assumptions. Among the most prominent were, first, sex offenders were believed to be at a high risk for reoffending—once a sex offender, always a sex offender. Second, it was thought that sex offenses against children were commonly committed by strangers. Taken together, the point was that if the police had a list, and the public could access it, children would be safer.

The problem, however, is that a mass of empirical research conducted since the passage of Jacob’s Law has cast increasing doubt on all of those premises. For starters, “the assumption that sex offenders are at high risk of recidivism has always been false and continues to be false,” said Melissa Hamilton, an expert at the University of Houston Law Center, pointing to multiple studies over the years. “It’s a myth.” * * *

In a series for Slate, we’ll spotlight three areas in which the growth of registries has been unexpected—and, we suggest, unwise:

  • Outlier offences. These are crimes far removed from the violent felonies that Jacob’s Law focused on, but which now trigger registration in many states. (Even public urination now qualifies.)
  • The expanded duration of registration. States are keeping people on longer and erecting more barriers to getting removed from the list, even if one poses a low risk of reoffending.
  • Collateral consequences. The range of restrictions attached to being identified as a sex offender has also grown. (In one state, you can’t be a sport fishing guide.)
On Friday, we’ll wrap up with a look at what could be done—and what lawmakers in some states have tried to do—to make registries smarter and better.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 12, 2014 08:01 AM
Posted to General Law Related