Sex offender laws may be doing more harm than good. That is the conclusion Human Rights Watch came to after two years of intensive research into sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws in the United States. Our research convinced us that politicians failed to do their homework by enacting popular laws without seeking expert advice on how best to prevent sexual violence.
Instead of an informed debate about how sexual violence ravages this country, politicians and the media have largely focused on child victims of truly horrific crimes by previously convicted sex offenders -- like the murders of Megan Kanka, Polly Klaas, and Jessica Lunsford. Horrific yes, but uncommon, which means the laws are designed to tackle only a tiny minority and fail to address the full picture of sexual violence.
A growing number of child safety and rape prevention advocates agree that current laws are not working. For example, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), a state-wide coalition of 84 rape crisis centers and sexual assault prevention programs, had this to say about residency restriction laws: They "waste valuable resources on sex offenders who are unlikely to reoffend, while leaving a deficit of treatment, supervision, and focus on offenders who we know should be receiving more intense scrutiny."
Two popular myths about child abusers underlie many of our sex offender laws: first, that our children have most to fear from strangers, and second, that sex offenders will inevitably repeat their crimes. But the data tell a different story. More than 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts. And recidivism rates for sex offenders are far lower than most people believe -- authoritative studies show that three out of four do not re-offend within 15 years of release from prison.
Furthermore, focusing much of our public policy resources on restricting the rights of former sex offenders will do very little, if anything, to protect the 87 percent of victims of sexual violence who were abused by someone who had no previous sex crime conviction.
Residency restriction laws, in place in 20 states, are based on another popular belief about former offenders -- that keeping them away from places where children gather will reduce their risk of re-offending. But there is no evidence these laws diminish crimes against children and some to suggest the opposite.
A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections analyzed 224 sex offender recidivists to see if where they lived had an effect on their crimes. The study found that residential proximity had very little impact on a recidivist's opportunity to re-offend. Many took pains to drive far from their neighborhoods in order to re-offend. More than half (113) came into contact with their victims through "social or relationship proximity" to the child. The most common example was that of a male offender who found his victim(s) while socializing with their mother.
The main impact of residency restrictions may be to drive former offenders underground, away from families, police supervision and the help that can stop them re-offending. As an Iowa sheriff pointed out, "We've taken stable people who have committed a sex crime and cast them out of their homes, away from their jobs, away from treatment, and away from public transportation. It's just absolutely absurd what these laws have done, and the communities are at greater risk because of it."
Law enforcement officials and sex offender treatment providers repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that isolating former offenders is counter-productive. Existing parole and probation laws already permit law enforcement agencies to place restrictions and conditions on former offenders when appropriate.
All registered sex offenders must provide a home address, but because of the restrictions, some do not have a home. Police in Iowa, which has seen residency restrictions backfire, have resolved this conundrum by allowing individuals to register as homeless, if they specify a location. So users who go to Iowa's online registry will find addresses listed as "on the Raccoon River between Des Moines and West Des Moines," "behind the Target on Euclid," and "underneath the I-80 bridge." I visited some of these "addresses." The areas are industrial, polluted, noisy, full of debris, and, in one case, right next to an active railroad track.
As a Des Moines police officer explained, "We don't expect that the registrants are actually living under the bridge, it's just one of the few places where they are legally allowed to admit they are living, and so they list that as their address, and go live someplace else."
Since the law took effect in Iowa, police have lost track of hundreds of former offenders.
Even online registries, where the personal details of offenders, but not necessarily the nature of their crime, are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, may not be that useful. Some were convicted of non-violent offenses, others were children when they committed their crime. Police already have the duty to inform neighbors when an offender who might pose a threat moves in.
But it's one thing to say parents should be told there's a dangerous man living next door -- which they should -- and quite another to let anyone browse the registries to see who's listed, regardless of any need to know. Unfettered access to registry information can and does lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders. That doesn't protect anyone. More effective would be to ensure that police actually pass on potential threats to the relevant community.
We deserve laws that protect everyone from sexual violence. Former offenders need laws that allow them to rebuild their lives -- because when they succeed in safely rejoining their communities, we are all made safer. State and federal legislators should end residency restrictions and reform online registry and community notification laws so they target high-risk offenders.
It's not surprising that those who know something about the nature of sexual violence in the United States have started to criticize the way the laws treat former sex offenders. But it's a shame that politicians don't seem to be listening to the experts who could help to craft laws that might actually prevent sexual violence.