The Shortsighted Scarlet Letter Approach to Sex Offenders
Recently I wrote about our nation's overbroad, inhumane, and ultimately shortsighted sex offender laws, exemplified by the story of Larry Moore, a convicted sex offender and homeless person facing life in prison in Georgia for failing to register a home address.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the first comprehensive, in-depth report examining the efficacy and effect of registration laws, titled “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the U.S.”, a culmination of two years' research which included hundreds of interviews conducted with victims of sexual violence and their families, law enforcement and government officials, treatment providers, researchers, child safety advocates, and former offenders.
HRW concluded that while sex offender laws may not protect children from sex crimes, they do lead to "harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders". Instead of narrowly tailoring registration requirements to appropriate offenders, "requirements are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, [and thus] 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."
Moreover, while policymakers have relied on the "stranger-next-door" image to enact residency laws that make it virtually impossible for convicted sex offenders to live in any community, HRW notes that government statistics indicate that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members or trusted authority figures as opposed to convicted sex offenders, three-quarters of adult offenders do not reoffend, and treatment (which includes proactive society reentry programs) can be effective even for people who have committed serious sex crimes (as opposed to policies of ostracism and isolation).
Even when people convicted of sex offenses find appropriate residences, their homes are essentially illuminated with flashing lights that shine from coast to coast, often with devastating consequences. Since anyone with internet access can determine the identity and whereabouts of any registered sex offender anywhere in the country, registered sex offenders live in a world devoid of privacy. As a result, HRW reports, "many [sex offenders] cannot get or keep jobs or find affordable housing. Registrants' children have been harassed at school; registrants' spouses have also been forced to leave their jobs. Former offenders included on online registries have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through windows, and feces left on their doorsteps. They have been beaten, burned, stabbed, and had their homes set on fire. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide."
Human Rights Watch recommends that states eliminate residency restriction laws, limit registration requirements to people who have been convicted of serious crimes and assessed as posing a significant risk of recidivism, and terminate publicly accessible online registries, placing community notification solely in the hands of law enforcement to be used only for those registrants who pose a significant risk of re-offending.
Relegating sex offenders to the outskirts of society, punishing them for homelessness instead of trying to find them housing, constructing daunting barriers to gainful employment, and publicly branding and stigmatizing them only renders offenders' rehabilitation and reentry exceedingly difficult, causes them unnecessary hardship, and, just as when we turn our backs on any ex-prisoner, merely increases the risk of recidivism and further destabilizes society as a whole.
Our lawmakers should read the HRW report and rethink our legal and social policies regarding sex offenders.