Laws aimed at people convicted of sex offenses may not protect children from sex crimes but do lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders.

A project narrated by Sarah Tofte, Researcher, US Program


PATTY WETTERLING: When Jacob was kidnapped, and I was told the motive behind kidnapping was for sexual purposes, I’m sure I stared blankly at these investigators – most of us don’t think about sexual crimes against children; it’s just something you don’t want to think about ever.

SARAH TOFTE: Sexual violence affects tens of thousands of people each year, many of them children. For the most part, the media has tended to focus on cases where children are abducted by strangers, who were often previously convicted sex offenders. This leads many to believe that children are most at risk from strangers and those with a history of abusing kids. Perhaps it’s not surprising law-makers have also taken this view – many of us who began work on this report thought the same way as well.

But now we believe current legislation may do more harm than good. I’m Sarah Tofte, US researcher at Human Rights Watch, and for close to two years, I’ve spoken to victims, former offenders, and child safety advocates for a report on United States sex offender laws. We examined various laws – on registration, community notification, and residency restrictions –that apply to former offenders.

We called the report “No Easy Answers.”


PATTY WETTERLING: Jacob was 11 years old, and was kidnapped by a masked man with a gun in front of his brother and his best friend, when they were biking home from a convenience store – they were half a mile from our home.

SARAH TOFTE: That was Patty Wetterling. Sex offender registration laws came out of a horrific crime that took place in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minnesota – the abduction of her 11-year-old son, Jacob Wetterling by a man in a ski mask. Jacob is still missing today. When the police were conducting the investigation Jacob’s mother Patty Wetterling was very surprised to find that the police had no list of ready suspects at hand.

PATTY WETTERLING: When I asked investigators, and asked what would have helped? What tools do you need, and they said it would have helped to know who’s in the area, so we could go through these people and contact the ones find out where they were that night. So I wanted personally to give law enforcement every possible tool, so that they could go after somebody who would do this type of crime.

SARAH TOFTE: Patty began pushing for the very first sex offender laws, and managed to get a law passed in her home state of Minnesota. Soon after, the registration law for sex offenders went federal. But there is a difference between Jacob’s Law, which passed in 1994, and the laws on the books today.

PATTY WETTERLING: The Jacob Wetterling Act stated that sex offenders when released from prison, would have to register their name and address with local law enforcement, and if they moved they would have to re-register within a certain timeframe so that law enforcement would know where they were.


SARAH TOFTE: Increased restrictions now exist even for those who committed their crimes as children, and registries are easily searchable by the public at large.

Garet Daley was 15 when he was accused by his adopted sister, Devon, 11, of molesting her. Nancy, Garet’s stepmother, reported Devon’s claim to the police and Garet was arrested at school the next day. He served two years in jail for the offense. Nancy Daley described Garet’s struggle to re-enter his community.

NANCY DALEY: We got this little home for Garet to live in and I purposely went out and met the neighbors and shook their hands and said that I was doing this for my son, but didn’t really get into what my son, you know, that my son was…that he was a registered sex offender. When you meet Garet he’s just like this likeable kid, you just like him when you meet him, and you can tell he’s just a good kid, and so they just really built up a relationship with him. Well, yes, it was on the internet, and yes, then the flyers went out in the community.

SARAH TOFTE: Police distribute flyers alerting neighbors to Garet’s presence. This has made the neighbors suspicious of nearly anything Garet does.

NANCY DALEY: A neighbor’s turned him in because they’ve heard him ask somebody to come in and watch a movie, or go to a movie with him. A neighbor has, you know, gone to another neighbor and said, “you better watch your kid because I’ve watched Garet and he’s looking out his shutters at him.”

SARAH TOFTE: Garet lost a job bagging groceries when his probation officer revealed that he was a registered sex offender.

NANCY DALEY: His probation officer walked into the store and she stood in front of the grocery store and pointed to Garet and said “Do all of you people know that this is an f-ing sex offender? He’s a molester, he’s a pervert.

SARAH TOFTE: Garet is subject to lifetime registration and community notification, so his name and personal information are on an online sex offender registry in his home state of Arizona, available to anyone with an Internet connection.


SARAH TOFTE: Laws that restrict former sex offenders are created in part out of a widespread belief that, once a sex offender, always a sex offender. But the evidence doesn’t support this idea.

JILL LEVENSON: These laws really are predicated on common beliefs throughout our society, and you have see these comments cited, that because of the very high recidivism rates of sex offenders that we need special legislation to protect ourselves from them.

SARAH TOFTE: Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida is an expert on sex offender management, and has conducted extensive research on recidivism rates for convicted offenders.

JILL LEVENSON: It’s an interesting concept that’s one of these common knowledge sorts of things, that everybody knows that all sex offenders will re-offend, and the truth is that that is simply not supported by the scientific data, or the scientific literature. There have been several large and credible studies looking at recidivism, in other words, how often or how many sex offenders go on to commit new crimes, once they’ve already been convicted of a first. Our very own Department of Justice found, in a report from 2003, that the recidivism rate for sex offenders was about 5 percent over the three years following their release from prison.

The Canadian government, Canadian researchers, have also done some really sophisticated studies, tracking almost 30,000 sex offenders from North America and Europe, and they have found a remarkably consistent 14 percent recidivism rate, over four to six years.

The statistics may not convince Garet’s neighbors. But his sister Devon’s experience points to another misconception about sexual violence against children: the myth that strangers are the people to fear most. In fact, the painful truth about sex crimes against children is that over 90 percent of children are molested by someone they know and trust.

PATTY WETTERLING: It’s a huge percentage of violence that occurs where it is someone related to, or someone close to the family – it’s someone that’s known to the family and I think that so much of the legislation and so much the dialogue and the mental perspective is of the stranger, that really bad predatory guy.


SARAH TOFTE: In the course of my research, I came across family members of offenders who had molested children. One woman I spoke to, Amy, didn’t want to reveal her real name but told him that her daughter was abused by Amy’s husband, who is also her daughter’s step-father. When Amy’s daughter told her about the abuse, Amy reported her husband to the police. He was arrested, served a year and a half in jail, and underwent counseling. And then, Amy’s husband rejoined the family.

AMY: I think my daughter’s very strong. I was a battered women’s counselor, for about eight years, and I’m about the strongest woman you’ll ever meet, so it’s not that I’m a weak woman, and I’m a standing by my man kind of gal, cause I’m not, I want to give my daughter all the tools and techniques she needs to empower her to get on with her life, I don’t want her to be a professional victim the rest of her life. I don’t want this to define her.

Through restorative justice methods, that is confronting the abuser, having the abuser acknowledge and, I mean really, really acknowledge what he has done, to the victim and other family members, you can get past it. We had a successful family reunification over 10 years ago.

SARAH TOFTE: But though Amy’s family has lived together for 10 years, she says current registration and community notification laws make their lives almost impossible. When they go grocery shopping, they go thirty miles away because she is afraid somebody will recognize them. She no longer has friends around where she lives.


SARAH TOFTE: Human Rights Watch believes registration and community notification laws should be reformed. The abduction of Jacob Wetterling prompted Jacob’s law, one of the first sex offender laws, but Patty who has worked ever since a child safety advocate also believes much of the legislation for offenders today is based on myths that keep getting perpetuated about sex crimes against children. The myths make it hard to closely consider the real concerns around this kind of violence.

PATTY WETTERLING: It’s really hard for me to understand – we’ve gotten to being just outrageously angered and vindictive and punitive in our mindset and, I think it’s sort of a momentum that’s grown, and for legislators you know, it’s an easy thing to get support for –and it’s always not the best well thought out plan to build safer communities. The goal we started with was “no more victims.”

SARAH TOFTE: Thanks very much for listening. This is Sarah Tofte for Human Rights Watch. For more about the findings in this report, please visit the “No Easy Answers” webpage in the US Program section of our website at