Friday, August 7, 2015

Dr. Jill Levenson: “It's time for a serious public dialogue about registry reform. It's time to question the placement of many individuals on sex-offender registries to determine if they really belong there”.

Dr. Jill Levenson

Does youthful mistake merit sex-offender status? August 6, 2015
By Jill Levenson

Jill Levenson is an associate professor of social work and researcher at Barry University in Miami, and a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with sexual assault victims, survivors and offenders for nearly 30 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. 

Zachery Anderson was a 19-year-old college student with no criminal history when he met a teenage girl on the dating app "Hot or Not" and had sex with her in December. The girl, who admitted she lied about her age, turned out to be only 14, making their encounter a sexual crime.

Despite statements from the girl and her mother begging the judge for leniency, Anderson was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years on probation.  

There are few crimes that inspire as much fear and outrage in society as sexual offenses, and lawmakers have responded swiftly and decisively to the public's demand for protective and punitive legislation.  

Sexual assault is a heinous crime that can impact a victim's physical, mental and emotional health in ways that last a lifetime. 

Sex-offender registries were designed to help police, concerned citizens and parents prevent victimization by listing predatory, violent and pedophilic offenders who posed a true threat to children and others in our communities. But the current system -- which forces people such as Anderson to register -- impedes this goal. It dilutes the public's ability to tell who is really dangerous. 

It also creates an added workload and burden for law enforcement personnel, and generates an inefficient distribution of fiscal resources. Every dollar spent monitoring someone like Anderson for 25 years is a dollar not available for victim services, child-protection responses and prevention programs for at-risk families, such as children in poor, disadvantaged, minority communities who are at higher risk than children from more affluent areas.  

Being placed on the sex-offender registry is not just a name on a list -- the consequences are dire. If his name does remain on the list, it will be almost impossible for Anderson to remain in college, or pursue his chosen career path in computer science. He will struggle to find a job commensurate with his skills.  

Many employers will not even consider his application. He can't live in his parents' home due to residence restrictions (which make many offenders homeless), or be around minors, with exception to immediate family.  

For someone like Anderson, these crippling outcomes are unfair and unnecessary, and do not serve the interest of public safety.  

It's time for a serious public dialogue about registry reform. It's time to question the placement of many individuals on sex-offender registries to determine if they really belong there.  

Juveniles should be removed from registries, and young-adult offenders should be reassessed to determine whether deviant sexual disorders motivated their crimes, or simply poor judgment. Risk-assessment tools, which have been well-researched and are designed specifically to classify sex offenders into risk categories, should be used to estimate the likelihood of future offenses. Discretion should be returned to judges (in most cases, if someone is convicted of specific statutes, registration is mandatory, regardless of whether a judge feels it should apply) so that punishments fairly fit the crimes.  

For many registrants, 25-year and lifetime-registration periods are unnecessary, and lower-risk offenders in all states should be afforded an opportunity to petition for early removal from the registry.  

Research shows risk significantly declines with time as sex offenders live in the community offense-free, and those who successfully complete parole and treatment are also at reduced risk. Let's stop wasting valuable resources on young men such as Zachery Anderson, and target our efforts toward monitoring truly dangerous sexual predators who pose a real threat to American communities.