The wrong sex offender laws

Jamie Fellner is director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.

Politicians and the public love sex offender laws. Everyone wants to protect children and reduce threats to public safety. Trouble is, the laws may do more harm than good.

The right to live free of sexual violence is fundamental. But two years of intensive research into sex offender laws in the United States has convinced us at Human Rights Watch that politicians in California (and elsewhere in the country) failed to do their homework when enacting such popular laws. Many bills are passed in response to truly horrific crimes -- like the murders of Polly Klaas, Megan Kanka and Jessica Lunsford -- but sadly, they are often based on misconceptions that make them less effective in preventing violence.

The laws we studied cover three main categories -- residency restrictions, community notification and registration. Although promoted as ways to protect children, they are not limited to people who have abused children and are likely to do so again. Instead, they typically apply to anyone who has committed any kind of sex-related offense and can include teenagers having consensual sex, streakers and others committing nonviolent crimes. Those convicted as juveniles -- some as young as 10 -- are also subject to these laws.


But is public safety really served by such legislation? There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these laws don’t protect children and may even increase the risk by exacerbating the factors that lead people to re-offend.

Let’s look at why residency restrictions, for example, aren’t effective. Under California’s Proposition 83 -- also known as Jessica’s Law -- sex offenders released from prison after the law took effect are barred from living within 2,000 feet of any school or park. Given the density of schools and parks in many areas, the residency restriction effectively banishes them for life from living in many cities and towns, often far from their homes, families, jobs and treatment. That makes it nearly impossible for offenders to re-integrate into society successfully and hinders their supervision by police.

Earlier this month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation notified 2,741 sex offenders that they have less than 45 days to comply with this restriction. One man, unable to find anyone who would rent to him, is reportedly living in a tent in the Ventura River bottom. Turning former offenders into outcasts puts a tremendous burden on law enforcement and diverts resources that could be better used.

If California had done its research, it could have learned from the experiences of other states that residency restrictions don’t enhance public safety. For example, in Iowa, after two years’ experience with a residency law similar to California’s, law enforcement officials decry the restriction for forcing registrants underground and driving them away from supervision.

Furthermore, the restrictions are relatively meaningless. For example, a recent study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that residential proximity has little effect on the choice of victim -- repeat offenders usually knew their victims through social and familial relationships. And prior to Proposition 83, existing parole and probation laws already permitted police to place restrictions and conditions on former offenders when appropriate.

Online registries, which are very popular with the public, may not be sound measures either. They are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection and contain personal details of offenders. The registries identify the law under which an offender is convicted, but the legalese doesn’t give the average person a clue as to the actual offense, or whether an offender remains dangerous. And it’s one thing to ensure that parents know if someone who poses a threat moves in and quite another to let anyone browse the registries, regardless of any need to know. Registries are not necessary because police have the authority to notify neighbors.

Supporters of registries are not able to point to evidence that the registries have reduced sexual violence. But there is ample evidence, as documented in our recent report, that unfettered access to registries can and does lead to extensive harassment and sometimes violence against former offenders.

Sex offender laws are often based on and perpetuate two popular myths about child abusers: that “stranger danger” is the greatest risk our children face and that once a sex offender, always a sex offender. In fact, the evidence shows that family members, friends or acquaintances are responsible for more than 90% of sexual abuse cases involving children.

As for repeat offenses, most convicted sex offenders do not have a lengthy history of repeating the crime. The U.S. Department of Justice reported a recidivism rate of 3% to 5% three years after release. A longer study found that three out of four did not re-offend within 15 years. These laws offer no protection against first-time offenders, who are responsible for 87% of reported sex crimes against children.

Children deserve laws that work. And former offenders need laws that allow them to rebuild their lives because when they succeed in safely rejoining their communities, we are all safer. Politicians in Sacramento need to work across the party divide to reform these laws, and a first step would be to repeal the residency restrictions in Proposition 83. And the public needs to understand that focusing so much attention on convicted offenders distracts us from developing effective and fair responses to the complex reality of sexual violence.