1988 rape and murder of 29-year-old Diane Ballasiotes in Seattle, Washington,
followed by the 1989 rape and sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy,
were the seedlings of today’s nationwide sex offender registry laws – a
50-state network that tracks over 805,000 registrants and whose usefulness as a
crime-prevention tool has been questioned and criticized.
cases from that same era – including the widely-reported 1989 kidnapping,
sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, which
was solved only late last year – led to a series of 1990-2000 state and federal
statutes that established central registries for sex offenders, as well as
residency restrictions and civil commitment laws.
and advocates for change wonder how many of the nation’s more than 805,000
registered sex offenders are in prison or jail on any given day just for
violating registration requirements – which are technical violations rather
than sex crimes, and did not even exist before 1990. And how much does that,
and registry enforcement efforts, add to the rising costs of tracking and
monitoring sex offenders? In Palm
Beach County, Florida,
one officer said 20 deputies are assigned full time to check on sex offenders
and confirm their residences.
quarter-century, are sexual predator laws and nationwide sex offender
registries delivering the benefits they promised? Or have we overreacted to the
threat of “stranger danger” with throw-away-the-key excesses, damn the cost?
pro-registry crusader Patty Wetterling (Jacob’s mother) has said, wondering if
things have gone too far: “We’ve cast such a broad net that we’re catching a
lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who
just screwed up. Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives
generally express belief that the registry system, which has federal oversight,
helps to protect them, their families and their children from sexual predators.
In reality, however, researchers and officers of the court such as Eric Tennen,
criminal defense attorney who specializes in sexual assault cases, say
registries fail to achieve their professed goals.
starters, according to Tennen, “because of the myth that sex offenders reoffend
at very high rates, many people believe that most sex offenses are committed by
repeat offenders. In fact, up to 95 percent of all sexual offenses are
committed by first time offenders,” who obviously are not required to register
until after they’re caught.
has found that sex offenders have lower average recidivism rates in comparison
to other offenders, though they are more likely to commit another sex offense
than non-sex offenders (just as drug offenders are more likely to commit
another drug-related crime, thieves are more likely to commit more thefts,
etc.). According to an often-cited 2003 study published by the Department of
Justice that examined recidivism rates of 9,691 sex offenders released from
prison, the three-year arrest recidivism rate for sex-related crimes was 5.3
percent while the overall recidivism rate for any crime was 43 percent. As many
sex crimes are not reported, however, resulting in incomplete data, recidivism
rates for sex offenders are often questioned.
– president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.
think tank – said that while the registries are intended to track predatory
strangers who could reoffend, studies show that roughly 90 percent of sex
offenders know their victims. “Random kidnappers, like the man who took Jacob
Wetterling, are quite rare,” he explained. By most estimates, about a third of
victims are family members of their abusers and most of the rest are victimized
by someone their parents know.
Lehrer noted, seldom kidnap their victims despite suggestions to the contrary
in movies and novels. “The Polly Klass Foundation estimates that fewer than 100
children are kidnapped by strangers each year in the manner that Jacob
Wetterling was,” Lehrer wrote in a recent study entitled “Rethinking
Sex-Offender Registries,” published in the quarterly journal National Affairs.
these ‘stranger kidnappings’ involve children who were sitting in the back
seats of stolen vehicles or interrupted another crime in progress. Parents
wanting to protect their own children should worry much more about their own
friends and relatives than random strangers.”
Danny James Heinrich, who killed Jacob Wetterling, was an exception. But he
became the poster boy for child sex predators. His highly-publicized case
helped inflame the belief that strangers were the ones children should fear
most rather than people they were close to. Further, Heinrich had gotten away
with his crime – until he confessed in 2016, almost 27 years later.
ill-fated October night in 1989, he appeared out of the darkness, wearing a
mask and pointing a gun as three kids passed by on bicycles and scooters.
returning from a Sunday night trip to the neighborhood store in St. Joseph, Minnesota, a
town of about 7,000 an hour northwest of Minneapolis.
Established in the 1800s, the community adopted the name of its gothic Catholic
church, whose steeple looms over the central Minnesota countryside.
Wetterling, his brother and a friend were first told to lie face-down in a
ditch, then to turn over, and were asked their ages. The gunman told the
brother and friend to start running and not to stop or they’d be shot. He then
disappeared into the night with Jacob.
search followed, to no avail. Neither the abductor nor Jacob’s remains were
found. Police told the boy’s mother, Patty Wetterling, that they really didn’t
know where to start looking for suspects. It would help, they said, if they had
a list of local sexual predators to question.
two years they did, after Patty led a campaign that resulted in the state
legislature passing a law to register sex offenders in Minnesota.
California had approved the forerunner of
such laws in 1947, requiring sex offenders to provide their residential
addresses to police. While Patty Wetterling was crusading in Minnesota,
Ida Ballasiotes was winding up a campaign in honor of her daughter, seeking
similar legislation in Washington
the particulars that made Diane Ballasiotes’ death especially disturbing,”
reporter Barry Siegel recounted in a 1990 Los Angeles Times story. “She’d left
her job at a downtown Seattle
advertising agency one evening at 5:30 and just disappeared. The missing-person
posters her friends nailed everywhere described her as 5 feet-5 inches, 110
pounds, 29 years old, with curly shoulder-length auburn hair. Last seen, the
poster said, leaving the 1st and Yesler area of Pioneer Square, heading toward the 3rd
and Yesler U-Park garage, dressed in a navy skirt and tennis sweater. A Park
Department employee had found the body a week later, while looking for garbage
being dumped in another part of town, along Cheasty Boulevard South.”
killer, Gene Raymond Kane, Jr., 33, was later caught. He had attacked two other
women 13 years previously, did a stretch in prison and was sent to a work
release facility in Seattle
in 1988. He had been there just two months when he murdered Ballasiotes.
Convicted in 1989, he returned to prison with a life sentence. Ballasiotes’
family received a $260,000 settlement from the Washington Department of
Corrections, which had failed to properly monitor Kane while he was on work
Ballasiotes’ murder, standing alone, would not have resulted in calls for a new
law, Siegel noted. Even when a group called Friends of Diane began staging
rallies and circulating petitions, the response by state officials was muted.
Then came two more violent sexual assaults.
in December of 1988, a man broke into the apartment of a 23-year-old Pierce
County woman, removed a light bulb and lay in wait in her darkened bedroom,”
Siegel wrote. “When she returned, he tied her to the bed, raped her and slashed
her with a knife. The assailant was Gary Minnix, who’d been charged with four
vicious knife-related rapes in 1986 and linked by Seattle police to 22 other such cases.”
mentally retarded and with an IQ as low as 48, Minnix was incompetent to stand
trial. He ended up at WesternStateHospital
for the mentally ill. Since he was not a convicted criminal, he received
weekend furloughs – and was on his sixth weekend leave when he assaulted the
Siegel recounted in the Times, “five months later, in May of 1989, a 7-year-old
boy riding his bike near his Tacoma home was dragged into the nearby woods,
raped, choked nearly to death and sexually mutilated. Before leaving him
semi-conscious in the dirt, Earl K. Shriner cut off the boy’s penis.”
had a lengthy record of assaults on children, dating back to his involvement in
the murder of a schoolmate when he was 16. Mentally retarded, he had spent his
youth in juvenile facilities, schools for the disabled and a mental
previously kidnapped and assaulted two teenagers and was imprisoned 10 years
for that crime, Siegal reported. Shriner was denied parole and served his
entire sentence. By law the state couldn’t commit a dangerous person who wasn’t
mentally ill, so he was released – then later raped and mutilated the little
boy in Tacoma,
Ryan Hade, who survived the attack.
1989, Ida Ballasiotes’ support group, Friends of Diane, and a second
organization, the Tennis Shoe Brigade, marched on the state legislature in Olympia, unfurling a list
of crimes by sex offenders and demanding new laws to protect women and
response, Governor Booth Gardner, a Democrat, neutralized the debate by
appointing a trusted public servant to head a task force review: Republican KingCounty
prosecutor Norm Maleng, who had been Gardner’s
losing opponent in the last gubernatorial race.
hearings were held, 150 victims spoke about the need for a new law, and the
task force – which included Ida Ballasiotes (who went on to become a five-term
Republican state legislator) and Helen Harlow (Ryan Hade’s mother) – wrote the
nation’s first sexual predator registration bill. It was passed into law on
July 1, 1990.
statute increased prison sentences for sex crimes, created a civil commitment
procedure to confine offenders in secure treatment centers until they are
“cured,” allowed police to notify the public when sex offenders were released,
expanded treatment for victims and juvenile offenders, and created a central
registry – including photographs and fingerprints – of released sex offenders.
Minnesota passed a similar law in 1991, and
other states began to follow. In 1994, President Bill Clinton extended sex
offender-related restrictions nationwide. He signed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes
Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act that would
eventually require every state to create registries to track offenders by name,
age, addresses and other relevant details. Under subsequent statutes, that data
was expanded to include Social Security number, employer’s address, vehicle
license plate and vehicle description. Much of that information – except Social
Security numbers – is accessible by the public via the Internet.
said, “every state in the country will be required by law to tell a community
when a dangerous sexual predator enters its midst. We respect people’s rights,
but today America
proclaims there is no greater right than a parent’s right to raise a child in
safety and love.”
later, Megan’s Law – named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and
murdered in July 1994 by her neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas, a repeat sex
offender – was enacted in New Jersey.
The statute turned sex offender registry information into public records that
any citizen could access to learn if, for example, an offender lived nearby.
President Clinton subsequently signed a federal version of the law, extending
mandatory registration requirements to all states.
was initially sentenced to death; he is now serving life in prison after New Jersey abolished
offender-related legislation continued to pile up. The Pam Lychner Sex Offender
Tracking and Identification Act of 1996 was named for a Houston real estate agent who was the victim
of a 1990 attempted rape; her assailant received 20 years but became eligible
for early release. Lychner (who would later die in the 1996 explosion of TWA
Flight 800 over Long Island) lobbied for
longer sentences and stiffer registration rules for sex offenders. The Lychner
statute established a national database (the National Sex Offender Registry, or
NSOR) to track offenders, oversee and verify their registrations, and improve
victim notification procedures.
Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act added new amendments that revised the law’s
definitions to determine when a convicted sex offender has become a sexually
violent predator, and further expanded notification and registration
that came the 2000 Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, requiring higher education
workers and students to notify their institutions if they were registered sex
offenders; the 2003 Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the
Exploitation of Children (PROTECT) Act, which directed the Department of
Justice to launch a website linking to all state sex offender registry sites;
and the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, also known as the Sex
Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).
the 6-year-old son of John Walsh, who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981, the law
was the result of Walsh’s dogged efforts to impose new standards of justice in
such cases. Walsh, who later became an anti-crime activist and then a TV
personality, helping to capture lawbreakers with his popular show “America’s
Most Wanted,” successfully lobbied for tougher treatment of sex offenders, and
the Adam Walsh Act established the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing,
Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART).
legislation, signed by President George W. Bush, was intended to close loopholes
contained in earlier laws and increase the supervision of sex offenders. “Plain
and simple, this legislation, I can say with certainty, will save children’s
lives,” said then-Senator Joe Biden, a sponsor of the bill.
was disagreement as to the effect of some of this legislation and, for that
matter, dissention among some of the proponents. A 2013 story in the Minneapolis weekly, City
Pages, written by Jennifer Blyer, recounted a divide that first became apparent
during the 1996 signing of Megan’s Law.
those at the signing ceremony were Megan’s parents, Rich and Maureen Kanka;
Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old California girl who was abducted and
murdered in 1993; Patty Wetterling; and John Walsh.
was victorious, until a reporter asked if they thought the law was
constitutional. Walsh then stepped forward.
letting parents know that the fox is in the henhouse,” he said. “We’re sick of
seeing these people get all the rights and our children and the parents not
getting any rights. Believe me, I’ve hunted these people for nine years now.
They’re predators, they prey upon children – that’s their business. We deserve
to know these people are in our neighborhoods!”
Wetterling looked dismayed. “She interjected, explaining gently that Megan’s
Law was the equivalent of warning children about a dog in their neighborhood
that’s known to bite, and adding that it was not about revenge but ultimately
just one piece in a large puzzle whose goal was a safe society,” Blyer
attended another press conference a few years later for another law – the Adam
Walsh Act – that would impose additional regulations on sex offenders,
including establishing civil commitment procedures, expanding registration to
juvenile offenders as young as 14 and applying registry requirements
sex offender restrictions had mushroomed in a way that was starting to trouble
Wetterling,” Blyer wrote. “In the years since her son’s abduction, she had
devoted her life to children’s safety. But the more she learned about the
nature of child sexual abuse, the more she felt that these laws simply didn’t
address the root of the problem, and actually made it worse in ways that were
hard for most people to grasp.”
reporters spoke with Wetterling at the press conference, she admitted being
troubled about some of the legislation’s provisions.
have a little bit of concern about it being retroactive,” she said, “and that
it’s now going to register juveniles.”
Wetterling had grown weary of the retributive nature of the Adam Walsh Act and
an intolerance for sexual violence, which I agree with,” she told Blyer.
“People want a singular solution, and the solution that’s been sold over the
years is lock ‘em up and throw away the key....
“I have a
tremendous amount of respect for what John and Reve Walsh have done, and I used
to sit down with Marc Klaas to have a drink or six. We’ve undergone a shared
experience, and I’m never going to tell a parent the way they’re dealing with
it is wrong or the way I’m dealing with it is right.
think some of this really angry, punitive stuff is letting the bad guys win.
They’re building a world that isn’t caring and believing in one another. That’s
not who I am.”
Wang, writing in the New York Law SchoolLaw Review, of which she is the
publication’s former editor, sensed a similar trend as the country’s mood
shifted towards harsher penalties for sex offenders.
the mid-1970s, anxiety over child sexual abuse has continued to mount to the
point where Americans now ‘live in a culture of child abuse,’” she wrote,
citing various scholarly and media sources. “Due to this upsurge of ‘moral
panic,’ many have argued that sex offender laws have been passed rather
hurriedly and, at times, rely insufficiently on empirical evidence. Still,
these laws easily garnered the overwhelming support of the public, comprised of
citizens who, understandably, hope to protect society’s women and children from
added that “Due to an increased and intense media coverage of sex crimes, ‘the
public came to believe there was an epidemic of sexual offending,’ and thus
associated sexual offenses with violence and murder. In the 1990s, the public
developed a ‘renewed awareness and hatred for sex offenders,’ evidenced by
enactment of extensive new protections targeting pedophiles who prey on
children over the Internet.”
time, some states began pushing for their own hard-line, signature sex offender
legislation. In California, for one, Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Chelsea’s
Law in 2010. Spurred by the San Diego murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King by a
convicted sex offender, the statute established a new one-strike, life-without-parole
penalty for certain child-sex predators and other penalties for sex crimes
committed against minors by use of force, violence, duress, menace or fear.
also extended parole periods for registered offenders and added GPS monitoring
for those convicted of felony sex crimes involving physical contact with
children, along with a prohibition against loitering in parks where children
Because Chelsea’s Law focused on
more violent offenders, the legislation had widespread support. A review found
that more than 330 defendants were charged statewide in 2015 under various
aspects of the statute, including a former teacher who molested four boys and
was sentenced to 125 years.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who authored the law, said 1,025 people had been
charged and convicted since 2010 – 38 of whom received prison sentences of 25
years to life. At a press conference announcing the impact of the law, he said
he was “pleased to [stand] here and say definitively that it continues to
reports did not mention the cost of the statute and the added expense of
long-term penalties imposed on defendants charged under Chelsea’s Law. But original budget
projections from 2010 estimated the legislation would cost $1 million to
implement, increase to $9 million to operate by 2020, and within ten more years
would reach $54 million.
and criminal defense attorney Gretchen Von Helms called that a misallocation of
funds. “Throwing more laws at this problem is probably just going to cost a lot
of money and not work out very well,” she told San Diego’s KNSD-TV.
to Parents for Megan’s Law, as of 2016 there were more than 805,000 registered
sex offenders in the United States;
other nations have their own registry systems, including Canada, Australia
and the UK.
About a third of U.S.
registrants are considered at low risk to reoffend, and roughly 15 percent fall
in the category of sexually violent predators. Almost all are male, with an
average age of 45 and one sex offense conviction.
relentless registration of sex offenders that effectively began with Ida
Ballasiotes’ grassroots crusade in Washington
state exploded into the public belief that abduction and murder by strangers
was emblematic of child sex assaults.
Patty Wetterling will tell you, the law named after her son produced a
startling result. On November 21, 2016, Danny Heinrich apologized to Patty and
her husband, Jerry Wetterling, for molesting and killing their son, even though
he was never convicted of those crimes.
was actually a suspect early in the initial 1989 investigation, but had
maintained his innocence. Patty never let the unsolved case get too far from
the public’s memory, however, and on the 25th anniversary of Jacob’s death,
cold case detectives, using modern DNA technology, decided to take another look
at Heinrich and other suspects. They found his DNA on a sweatshirt belonging to
a boy who was sexually assaulted nine months prior to Jacob’s abduction and murder.
serving a search warrant at Heinrich’s home, investigators discovered a
collection of child pornography and he was arrested. In August 2016, after
continued questioning, he confessed to the earlier sex assault and to killing
Jacob. In court, he told the chilling story of the abduction and how his young
victim had asked him, “What did I do wrong?”
up shooting Jacob twice in the head, spooked, he said, after a police car –
with siren and emergency lights on – passed nearby.
Minnesota prosecutors agreed not to charge
him with the murder if he would reveal where Jacob’s remains were buried, which
he did. “I am truly sorry for my evil acts that I have done against victims and
their family, and the shame I brought on myself and my family,” Heinrich said
in court. He was sentenced to 20 years on federal child porn charges; however,
once he nears his release date, authorities can petition to have him civilly
committed as a sexual predator and held indefinitely.
was a little sense of accomplishment, we got answers,” Jerry Wetterling told
KSTP-TV, “but it was overridden by this huge sadness, that, okay, this is for
real, Jake’s not coming home.”
the case had helped launch a cottage industry of sex offender registration and tracking
that has since grown into a global governmental enterprise: Sex offenders are
required to register and report their whereabouts, and in the process reveal
their personal information and criminal convictions to anyone who wants to
check online registries. The number of registered sex offenders has grown from
around 541,000 in 2006 to just over 805,000 a decade later, and will continue
to increase as new offenders are added to those already required to register.
2016, Luis C. deBaca, director of the Justice Department’s SMART office,
established by the Adam Walsh Act, praised the registry system and his office’s
progress on its tenth anniversary.
come a long way,” he said, “in meeting the complex challenges of sex offender
management and building a comprehensive sex offender registration and
notification system.” He described how, as legislation grew from the Jacob
Wetterling law to the Adam Walsh Act, “the national standards for sex offender
registration and notification were strengthened, and sex offenders were no
longer able to evade registration requirements or the consequences of
it’s still a work in progress, he added. All states have some form of sex
offender registries but they’re not uniform nor fully implemented. In fact, as
of April 2017, only 17 states had “substantially implemented” SORNA
requirements according to the SMART office.
not every jurisdiction is SORNA-compliant,” deBaca acknowledged, “many have
aspects of the law in place and are on the path to achieving substantial
degree, Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, agreed. “The
registries have, in an important sense, worked: Patty Wetterling’s successful
crusade correlated with improvements in public safety.”
been a 30 percent drop in reported rapes from 1995 to today, Lehrer noted. And
while the U.S.
population has grown about 13 percent from 1999 to 2013, the number of child
sex abuse cases tumbled from 88,000 to 61,000 during that period.
these numbers and any others associated with sex crimes are probably best
considered as relative measures since so many sexual offenses go unreported,”
Lehrer said, “they reflect a significant drop in the offenses that registries
are intended to prevent.”
in a study recently completed for National Affairs, he took a closer look at
sex offender registration and discovered a more nuanced and disturbing story.
report, entitled “Rethinking Sex-Offender Registries,” concluded that today’s
registries don’t work as well as they could, are too inclusive, overly
restrictive and end up hurting some of the people they’re intended to help.
a registry imposes many burdens on those required to take part,” Lehrer wrote.
“Individuals included on registries must inform police or other public-safety
officials of their places of residence and work. Failure to register in a
timely fashion can result in additional felony charges. They must obtain
permission to move and, often, to travel. Most have their names posted in
publicly accessible Internet databases. A number of states –including Florida, Oklahoma,
Tennessee, and Nevada –require some classes of sex
offender to have special state ID cards or driver’s licenses identifying them
many jurisdictions forbid sex offenders from living near schools, daycare
centers and playgrounds due to residency restrictions, while others are barred
from homeless shelters. Positions that bring sex offenders into regular contact
with children –nearly all jobs at schools, for
example–are also off-limits, he observed.
places, people on registries cannot patronize sexually oriented businesses, own
firearms, and even hand out candy on Halloween,” Lehrer noted. Laws to impose
other penalties on registered sex offenders –restricting
them from visiting parks or barring them from living with their own children–also have widespread public support.
it appears that no proposed sex-offender registration law has ever failed a
free-standing, regular-order floor vote in any state legislature. No state that
has passed a sex-offender registration law has ever repealed it, and no law has
ever been weakened in a substantial way –even when stories emerge of
serious consequences for former offenders.”
California, for example, 20 percent of sex offenders have no place to live as a
result of residency restrictions – a fact that evokes little public sympathy or
calls for reform, despite the fact that forcing sex offenders into homelessness
makes them more difficult to monitor and less likely to successfully reintegrate
into society, putting them at increased risk of recidivism.
Lehrer wrote, “few new public policies have become so widespread so quickly or
attracted such unanimous support from across the political spectrum. The reason
for this is obvious: All parents are horrified by the thought of their children
being snatched from them and sexually abused. Sexually oriented crimes
committed against children are, for deep-seated cultural and perhaps innately
human reasons, considered particularly grave violations of human dignity.”
“virtually no well-controlled study shows any quantifiable benefit from the
practice of notifying communities of sex offenders living in their midst,”
several reasons for that finding. For one, most child sex offenses do not
involve strangers but rather family members or friends or associates; that is,
the danger is usually not from outsiders – registered sex offenders who live
nearby – but from within families and their social circles. Additionally,
registries give people a false sense of security; they identify known sex
offenders who are required to register, but not other offenders who have not
yet been convicted of a sex crime and are thus unknown.
registries are also riddled with errors, and include listings for sex offenders
who no longer live in the state or are incarcerated or deceased.
course, not all sex offenders are equally dangerous. The catch-all nature of
registries mean they include numerous offenders who pose no threat to children,
or to anyone else – such as people convicted of statutory rape for having
consensual sex with an underage girlfriend, or who have patronized prostitutes,
or been convicted of indecent exposure or other crimes that do not involve physical
contact. In some cases, juveniles who send nude pictures of themselves to their
friends – sexting – are being charged with production and distribution of child
registries put sex offenders at risk of vigilante justice, since people who
want to harass or harm them can easily obtain their residential addresses,
photos and other personal information through online registries. There are
numerous examples where sex offenders have been assaulted or killed, or their
homes vandalized or torched. In some cases, innocent victims are targeted under
the mistaken belief they are sex offenders; for example, because they live at
an address where a sex offender previously resided and the registry has not
studies of sex offender registries indicate that neighborhoods are negatively
affected in the form of lower real-estate values – as much as four percent
lower when the public becomes aware an offender is living in their community.
there is the price tag for taxpayers. States have been wrestling with
implementation of SORNA for around a decade, with some choosing to go all in
while others look for wiggle room to avoid the substantial costs of compliance.
issues have led to the fractured implementation process. Government figures
pegged SORNA implementation launch costs in California, for example, at $66 million. In Texas the price tag was projected to top $44 million
initially, and in New York
it was more than $35 million. Nationwide, launch expenses alone add up to an
estimated $550 million – not including ongoing compliance costs.
cost of establishing sex offender registries, tracking offenders and enforcing
registry violations is unknown, but obviously substantial.
Wang, in a 2014 survey of the SORNA statute, said the law requires significant
new spending, including the cost of additional personnel as well as new
software installation and maintenance. Then there are the added expenses of
more jail and prison space for offenders who violate registry requirements,
increased court and administrative costs, and additional law enforcement
many states found it was cheaper not to implement the law and instead take a
comparably small statutory penalty through the loss of certain federal funds
due to non-compliance.
said Wang, “in every state, the first year costs of SORNA implementation
outweigh the cost of losing ten percent of the state’s Byrne funding,” which
are justice-assistance grants given to states by the Department of Justice. “In
the Sex Offender Management Board recommended that the state legislature,
governor, and citizens elect not to comply with the [Adam Walsh Act],
emphasizing the ‘substantial’ and ‘unreimbursed’ costs associated with the
law,” she wrote.
Wang learned the SORNA program itself is underfunded, and Congress has failed
to allocate consistent funding to underwrite the significant compliance costs
incurred by state and local governments. State lawmakers frequently refer to
SORNA as an “unfunded mandate,” and describe a “disturbing disconnect” with
respect to withholding Byrne grant funds, which support services that would
help states meet federal requirements for sex offender registries.
2016 report in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare addressed the
fiscal considerations of registration about which, the authors said, “law
enforcement agents and others have expressed concerns” due to cost and
spent on policies that overextend their reach while failing to enhance public
safety take funding away from other rehabilitation and reintegration programs
as well as from victim services and prevention initiatives,” the study found.
The report recommended a “paradigm shift toward empirically-based sex offender
management systems which could prove more cost-efficient than current
Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a D.C.-based think tank that specializes in
criminal justice reform, found that most of the federal resources available to
states would be devoted to the administrative maintenance of the registry and
to notification, rather than targeting known dangerous sex offenders.
“Registries and notification have not been proven to protect communities from
sexual offenses,” a JPI study found, “and may even distract from more effective
Eli Lehrer said that while there are anecdotal examples of community
notification helping to catch individual sexual predators, “it’s not clear that
any sex offender who re-offended has ever been caught by neighbors solely
because of public notification of his presence. In other words, the biggest
quantifiable cost of sex-offender notification [lowering property values]
appears to be borne by the neighbors it is intended to help, with no measurable
improvement in public safety.”
states require registration for those convicted of prostitution-related
offenses or urinating in public. Teens convicted of having consensual sex with
other teens must register in 29 states, and 40 states require juvenile
offenders to register. Nicole Pittman, director of the Center on Youth
Registration Reform, a project of Impact Justice, a California-based research
organization, has cited examples of juveniles being placed on registries for
minor offenses ranging from indecent exposure to “playing doctor.”
Lehrer pointed to Phillip Garrido, a sex offender who kidnapped and held Jaycee
Dugard in his backyard for 18 years and sexually abused her repeatedly, as an
example of someone the system allowed to slip through the cracks.
on a sex-offender registry for prior incidents of molestation and kidnapping.
His home was visited by parole officers and social workers numerous times. But,
overtaxed by the need to monitor California’s more than 83,000 registered sex
offenders, officials never performed the thorough search of his house that
would have located Dugard,” Lehrer wrote.
sex offender registries would be unwise and unpopular, he stated, but
policymakers need to make “sensible improvements,” such as exempting low-risk
offenders and most juveniles from registration requirements.
Marshall, a public defender in Oakland,
California, said her clients
would rather go to jail than have to register as sex offenders. In a July 5,
2016 article published on Vox.com, she wrote: “When I first became a public
defender, I believed the worst punishment that my clients would face would be
time in jail. Since then, I’ve learned that incarceration is not the only – and
perhaps not the worst – punishment the criminal justice system can impose. The
registration requirements imposed on those convicted of sex offenses are
unfairly harsh and punitive, though few recognize them as such.”
likely welcome news for victims of sex crimes, as was a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court
decision that held registration laws were not punitive measures but rather
administrative methods to protect public safety. The landmark case, Smith v.
Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), was based on a challenge to Alaska’s sex offender registry law. The
Court voted 6 to 3 in holding that the law passed constitutional muster.
Justice John P. Stevens, who wrote the dissent, argued that registries
“constitute a severe deprivation of the offender’s liberty.”
the public understand, Marshall
asked, that “our current sex offender registration laws apply an unbending and
inhumane one-size-fits-all approach that does not prevent future sex crimes and
in fact makes us all less safe?”
disputes that violent crimes such as rape, child molestation and sexual assault
are serious and should be the focus of registries. But, Marshall said, “there are also offenses like
peeing in public, which can qualify as indecent exposure. Similarly, grabbing
someone’s butt or masturbating in one’s own car also qualify as sex
registerable offenses, even though they are punishable as misdemeanors. We may
not want to legalize those behaviors, but forcing someone to be labeled a sex
offender for life over a misdemeanor that is only punishable at its maximum by
six months in county jail is excessive.”
systemic flaws, she wrote, include harsh penalties for failure to comply with
registration requirements. “Failing to register is itself a crime – frequently
a felony – meaning the punishment for failing to register can be more severe
than the punishment for the actual offense. In Georgia, for example, failing to
register is a felony carrying a sentence anywhere from a year to 30 years in
prison. Yet the registration laws are notoriously complex in ways that make
compliance all but impossible for many who are required to register.”
back as 2007, a year after the Adam Walsh Act became law, a Human Rights Watch
report found that registries do not prevent sex offenders from committing
future sex-related crimes, and that the best way to prevent crimes –
particularly sex crimes – is to promote stability and security for past
offenders, Marshall noted.
yet, “Ripping that all away by incarcerating them for failing to register only
leaves the public at risk,” she concluded, something that even prosecutors are
beginning to understand.
bill to expand residency restrictions for sex offenders was defeated after a
group that included the Alameda County District Attorney and the state Attorney
General’s office opposed it, arguing that such restrictions “actually increase
the risk of sexual recidivism.”
that the proven methods of protecting public safety involve moving away from
monitoring and shaming those who have committed past offenses, and focusing on
ways to prevent sex crimes on the front-end, and on meaningful reentry programs
that assist people coming out of prison to get jobs, housing, and support,”
Marshall said. “They may not provide the quick-fix satisfaction that
politicians love to sell – but they are the only thing proven to work.”
recent study in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare – authored by
three scholars, Jill Levenson, Melissa Grady and George Leibowitz – is
regularly cited by critics as offering sensible solutions to needed registry
reforms. As they observed in a synopsis of their findings, “Sex offender
registries, though popular, bring with them enormous fiscal costs and
unintended consequences for offenders and communities.”
to registries, they argued, would “mediate the stigma resulting from the sex
offender label and reduce barriers to offender reintegration.” Consequently,
they urged the implementation of five broad reforms: Juveniles should not be
subjected to sex offender registration; registration durations should be guided
by risk assessment research; procedures for relief and removal from registries
should be available; discretion should be returned to judges; and sex offender
residency restrictions should be abolished.
crimes such as rape and child sexual abuse are terrible, policymakers are
slowly starting to realize that imposing registration requirements on all sex
offenders, often regardless of the severity of their crimes or mitigating factors,
is a terrible – and costly – response that may in fact create more problems
than it solves.