Sex Offender Laws Have Gone Too Far
Our draconian policies about sex offenses reflect our ignorance of them.
By Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi and Jane Shim August 11, 2014
On Oct. 22, 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped while biking home from a convenience store. A masked gunman approached him, his brother, and a friend, and ordered the three boys off their bikes. After demanding to know their ages, he ordered Jacob’s brother and the friend to run into some nearby woods and threatened to shoot them if they looked back. The boys ran. By the time they turned around to see what had happened to Jacob, he was gone. Nearly 25 years later, Jacob remains missing, and the identity of his kidnapper is unknown.
“I was a stay-at-home mom,” Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, recalled over the phone last month. “I knew a lot about parenting, but I knew nothing about sexual abuse of children.” Determined to educate herself, Wetterling became “a sponge, trying to learn anything about this problem.” Soon, one thing stood out:
, where Jacob
had been kidnapped, did not have a database that might help the police identify
a list of potential suspects. Other states, such as Minnesota , had been keeping sex offender
registries for decades. Wetterling also learned that Congress had never tried
to craft a national approach to sex offender registration. She was determined to
change that. California
The result of her efforts was 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
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. Washington, D.C.