In 1994, The Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was passed by congress (DiNubile 110). This Act required all states to establish a registry for sex offenders containing information that was to be accessible to the public. It was named after an eleven-year-old boy who was kidnapped in 1989, and who has not been found. In October of 1996, the first amendment to this act, called “Megan’s Law,” was passed. Megan Nicole Kanka, a seven-year-old girl in New Jersey, was lured into her neighbor’s home where she was brutally raped and murdered in 1994. Her neighbor had previously served time in prison on two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. This amendment required states to provide notification services to the general public, informing them of the addresses of convicted sex offenders. The Kanka family’s mission statement is: “Every parent should have the right to know if a dangerous sexual predator moves into their neighborhood” (Sax 37-8). By the required implementation of this act in 1997, every state had a registry. Many states placed the registries online, while others required the public to go into the local police department to obtain the list. Each state’s requirements varied; both the information collected and posted as well as the required amount of time to register was subjective (Freeman-Longo 121).
In 2006, The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was passed and signed by President Bush. This legislation created a national sex offender registry. It also provided uniform standards for the states to use in collecting information to put on their own registries. It created three tiers of classification for sex offenders based on their crimes. The length of time required to register and frequency of registration is determined based on which tier they are placed in. Tier three offenders who are guilty of crimes punishable of greater than one year in prison that consist of sexual abuse or sexual aggravated abuse, sexual abuse involving a minor younger than 13 years of age, kidnapping a minor (excluding kidnappers who are parents or guardians), or any offense committed after a tier two classification, are required to register for life and must register every three months. Tier two offenders are convicted of crimes punishable by greater than one year in prison and are comparable to sex trafficking, coercion and enticement, transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, abusive sexual contact, using a minor in a sexual performance, soliciting a child for use in prostitution, or creating or using child pornography, are required to register for 25 years and update their information every six months. Tier one offenses include everything not covered in tiers two and three, are required to update information once yearly and register for 15 years (“National Conference of State Legislatures,” par. 10-14). This act also dictated sentencing for offenders who are non-compliant and offers federal assistance in locating and apprehending those who fail to comply. In addition to these stipulations, the registries are now required to be put on the internet with a structure and search capabilities similar to the national registry (“NCSL,” par. 15).
Objections to the Sex Offender Registry
Opponents of the Sex Offender Registry believe that these laws are an emotional response to crime, rather than being based on research that scientifically proves that public access to this information will make a difference in correcting the problem and reducing the crime (Freeman-Longo 118). It invites further violence, sometimes to innocent people when the registries are not updated. Maintaining the data is time-consuming, overly simplistic and inadequate. Public monitoring to ensure offender compliance is not effective as states do not have the financial means to fund enough resources to implement it properly (Freeman-Longo 118). There is also a lot of debate regarding the constitutionality of the registry. Placing private information and descriptions of crimes committed online where anyone in the world can access it is unnecessary, they say. It is a punitive measure not protected by the constitution and causes discrimination in housing and employment. Another argument against the registry is that it violates the “ex post facto” clause. This clause states that once an offender is sentenced, the punishment for the crime cannot be increased. The registry, however, includes the names and information of all sex offenders, even those convicted prior to its implementation in 1997 without informing them (DiNubile 110).
Another argument used against the Sex Offender Registry states that it creates a false sense of security among the public. The nature of the law leads people to believe they are safer knowing where offenders live, while safety is more than knowing this information. Others are anxious knowing they live near offenders, and this can create panic and neighborhood-wide mayhem. The sale of a house may be difficult or even impossible if a sex offender lives nearby. Much of this is unnecessary in their opinion, especially because so many of the address posted on registries are inaccurate, because of data being entered incorrectly, an offender failing to update an address or an offender purposefully providing wrong information (Freeman-Longo 117). In releasing the address and descriptions of crimes committed, victims can also be harassed and their identities made known.
Because of the embarrassment and ostracism those opposed to the registry believe a registered offender receives, poor decisions are made. Plea-bargains are made more often in which the crime is lessened to a non-sexual one. Juvenile offenders are not reported because parents, mentors, and social workers don’t want someone so young to be placed on this list for life (Freeman-Longo 121).
The Value of the Sex Offender Registry Outweighs the Objections
I find the arguments given by those who oppose the Sex Offender Registry to be, at best, grasping at straws. The opposition states that the advent of the registry is an emotional response to crime. How is the public supposed to respond to a sex crime occurring against a child? Should we as citizens respond coldly, logically, without any kind of emotion? When a child is raped, fondled, or forced into a sexual adult situation without their consent, parents are going to be angry. It is impossible to remove emotion from that kind of a situation. The Sex Offender Registry is not designed to prevent future crimes, nor does it imply that any registered offender will reoffend (Grafman, par.1). Every registry in the country is required to list several disclaimers. The State Sex Offender Registry says: “The information contained on this site does not imply listed individuals will commit a specific type of crime in the future, nor does it imply that if a future crime is committed by a listed individual what the nature of that crime may be and the Department makes no representation as to any offender's likelihood of re-offending” (“Department of Corrections,” par. 5). If a crime is prevented, that’s great—but not the purpose of the registry. In reality, if I am aware that a member of my church congregation is a registered sex offender, I’m never going to allow my child to be alone with him, and I will inform others within the congregation of the dangers posed to their children. Will this prevent a crime from occurring? In the case of my child, it is likely that it will. Will he abuse someone else’s child? Perhaps. Statistics may say otherwise, but when you look on a personal level, the truth is that my knowledge may have prevented my child from being hurt.
Vigilante justice is a concern, but in comparison to our children’s safety it is a minor issue (DiNubile 113). In my opinion it is not “caused” by the Sex Offender Registry. Who is more likely to commit a crime against an offender: a random person who accessed the registry, or the family and friends of one of his victims? The offender will already be known to the victim’s family, and his address and other personal information is accessible via the internet or phone book. If a person is afraid of retaliation, harassment and ostracism, they shouldn’t have sexually abused a child to begin with. In addition to the disclaimer regarding future crimes and prevention, state registries also address harassment and vigilante justice. Each state has a law that says something like this: “Members of the public are not allowed to use the information [in the registry] to harass or threaten offenders or members of their families; and harassment, stalking, or threats against offenders or their families are prohibited and doing so may violate criminal laws” (“DC, ” par. 7).
Prior to the passing of the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, the financial burden of maintaining the Sex Offender Registry and enforcing compliance fell on the states (Freeman-Longo 116). This act, however, provided several federal grants to states to assist in maintaining the program, including funds for local law enforcement, website programmers, and data entry personnel. The government also provides aid from federal law enforcement agencies to assist in locating and apprehending non-compliant, dangerous sex offenders (“NCSL,” par. 16). I would prefer that my taxes be used for the protection of my children, instead of paying for bonuses for legislators or other frivolous items.
Time and again our great nation’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Sex Offender Registry. In 2002, the Supreme Court reviewed a decision made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding an Alaskan Sex Offender Registration Statute. The Ninth Circuit stated that the “punitive” statute violated the “ex post facto” clause of the Constitution, saying that requiring offenders who were convicted prior to the creation of the registry should not have to be included. The Ninth Circuit stated that providing this information on the internet does not limit dissemination to those to whom the offender may be of concern, as the information can reach anyone in the world. This is beyond what is necessary to promote public safety, they said, and exposes registrants to personal and professional damage and worldwide ostracism (DiNubile 113). A similar case in Utah that appeared before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was handled in an entirely different matter. The Tenth Circuit states that internet notification represents a technical extension, not a “sea change,” in our nation’s history. They stated that the farther removed a person is from an offender’s community, the less likely they will have an interest in accessing the information. The Tenth circuit states that the registry is not punitive, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court (DiNubile 109-110). In reviewing the Alaska case, Smith v. Doe, the Supreme Court decided that requiring an offender to register with the state does not extend a sentence because the registration itself is non-punitive. Because the registry states that harassment is illegal, the offender is not being punished. In a similar case titled Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, the Supreme Court stated that registration is not a deprivation of liberty. They also determined that an assessment of an offender’s current threat of danger is not necessary prior to registration (Rowan 74).
Opponents of the registry state that the information provided to the public lulls them into a false sense of safety, then turn around and say the information causes community-wide panic and terror (Freeman-Longo 120). How can one feel both safe and terrorized? Logically this does not make sense. If the public does, in fact, believe themselves and their children to be safe simply knowing where an offender lives, then they need to be educated. There are countless resources online, in print, and from local law enforcement and child protection agencies that can be easily accessed twenty-four hours a day to provide such information. It is easy to understand that registered sex offenders are not the only threats, and that most offenders have not been caught. It is also easy to understand that most threats come from family and friends, acquaintances and neighbors. If the public is informed of these facts, they will not believe just knowing a registered offender’s location will keep their children safe. Education is the key to preventing panic as well.
As of 2002, there were more than 700 (46%) of registered sex offenders in St. Louis, Missouri who did not live at the addresses posted on the registry, while approximately 285 offenders released from prison never made it on the list at all (Freeman-Longo 119-120). Those who do not agree with the registry use this type of information to fuel their arguments, stating that misinformation is damaging to the public. I agree that misinformation is not acceptable, and so does the federal government. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006 provides assistance in making sure the information is correct by offering aid to state and local law enforcement agencies (“NCSL,” par. 16). There are standards that must be maintained by the state in order to receive federal grants, which provides increased motive to make sure the information is as accurate as possible. We as citizens also have a responsibility to provide any knowledge we have to the state in maintaining accurate information. If you are aware of a non-compliant offender, report it. If you live in a home whose address is listed on the registry but you are not an offender, report it. If you are a victim or family member of an offender and he or she is not in compliance, take the initiative and provide the information to the authorities. I have done it more than once. A victim of sexual abuse myself, I keep tabs on my abuser. Twice in the last five years he has not been compliant. Because the offender is a member of my extended family, it is easy for me to access accurate information about his place of residence. Having reported this information to the local Department of Corrections, they were able to locate him and update the information on the state’s registry. As a parent, I frequently check the registry for sex offenders in my neighborhood. I am a resident at a large apartment complex. This complex runs background checks on all residents and excludes any type of convicted felon from living here—especially sex offenders. Last year, in checking the registry, there was an offender listed in the building next to my own. I contacted management, who determined that the offender in question did not live at that address but in a different city. He had illegally listed the address of a relative as his own. This was reported to law enforcement, and they were able to locate him and correct the false information he provided.
In response to the argument that offenders are afraid of being ostracized, I say, “so what?” If they are so afraid of the repercussions of the crimes they committed, they should have made the decision not to offend in the first place. In our society sexually abusing a child is abhorred in every degree. Within prisons, child molesters are on the bottom of the totem pole and often persecuted by other inmates (Rowan 59). With this knowledge being so prevalent, it is possible to decide to keep your hands to yourself and avoid sexually abusing a child. Convicted felons of other crimes lose certain rights (such as the right to vote and the right to bear arms), so why should convicted child molesters maintain the “right” to be accepted into society? If I am aware that a person may pose a potential threat to my children, I will certainly not extend him the “right” to my respect or acceptance. Suzanne DiNubile, author of “Community Notification Laws Protect Children from Child Molesters,” believes that the ostracism or scorn felt by an offender stems from his own shame. She quotes the Third Circuit court in their statement that “the ‘sting’ [of having to be registered] results from the dissemination of accurate public record information about their past criminal activities.” She believes that if this shame is an obstacle in the offender’s life, they should seek counseling, just as their victims must in order to lead a normal life. She states that there is no obligation for the state to keep public information inaccessible just to prevent an offender from feeling victimized (DiNubile 111). All of this information is a matter of public record anyway, whether it is put on a registry or not. With the internet, information is at the tip of our fingers. I could find any number of resources including court, law enforcement and correctional facility records that contain public information regarding all offenses committed. Websites containing personal addresses and phone numbers are easy to come by. If you don’t want to use the internet, visit the jail, walk into the police department, or find a phone book. This information is accessible; the only difference is that the registry makes the search for information faster and more convenient. It provides citizens with a tool to protect our children. Potential registration and embarrassment resulting from it facilitates a deterrent against sex crimes. Because the internet can also be used as a means to commit a crime against a child, law enforcement must keep up and use technology as an offense tactic (DiNubile 114).
It is easy to see that the value of the Sex Offender Registry far outweighs the objections to it. Vital information about potential dangerous threats to our children is far more important than a convicted sex offender’s concern about having their address and photo listed on the internet. The opportunity to prevent a horrific crime from occurring is more important than an offender feeling ostracized or ashamed because the details of their crimes are available to the public in a readily accessible way. The registry may not be perfect, but its importance is recognized by all branches of our government—Congress by passing the original bills, the President by signing and approving them, and the Supreme Court by continuing to uphold the importance and constitutionality of the legislation. As a parent, I will do everything in my power to protect my children from harm, including regularly using my state’s registry and educating my children on the dangers of sexual predators. Won’t you?
Berenzweig, Sally. “Fighting Child Abuse With Books.” Your PBC. Your PBC, 12 April 2011. Web. 4 July 2011.
DiNubile, Suzanne D. “Community Notification Laws Protect Children From Child Molesters.” Child Abuse: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2003. 109-114. Print.
Freeman-Longo, Robert E. “Community Notification Laws are Unjust.” Child Abuse: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2003. 115-121. Print.
Grafman, Jared. “Sex Offender Registry Designed to Inform Public.” The Maneater: The Student Voice of MU. The Maneater Student Newspaper, 7 February 2011. Web. 4 July 2011.
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Sax, Robin. Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009. Print.