By Sarah Tofte, criminal justice researcher
As state legislatures begin their 2008 sessions, lawmakers will need to decide whether to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act on sex offenders or lose federal money for law enforcement. The choice for states is to dramatically increase their registration and community notification requirements for convicted sex offenders by 2009 or lose significant federal law enforcement grant money. Yet, adoption of this Act will, in fact, harm those who it purports to protect.
It doesn’t seem like a difficult choice. Who wouldn’t want to support laws targeting convicted sex offenders and be paid for it? Yet legislatures from Arizona to Illinois to Rhode Island are leaning against implementing the law. Because once you get past the painful emotions and look hard at the problem of child sexual abuse, it turns out that sex offender registration and community notification laws might not actually prevent sexual violence.
Sex offender laws are based on two popular myths about child abuse: that children have most to fear from strangers, and that sex offenders will repeat their crimes. In fact, over 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows. And authoritative studies show that three out of four sex offenders do not reoffend within 15 years of release from prison. In fact, 87 percent of sex crimes are committed by persons with no previous sex offense convictions.
The Adam Walsh Act doesn’t tackle the real dangers to children, and contains disturbing provisions. It requires states to register and identify online children aged 14 and older who commit sex offenses. Many states treat child sex offenders differently than adults, exempting them from community notification. They understand that child sex offenders respond well to treatment and have an excellent chance of rehabilitation – and that crimes they committed as children should not haunt the rest of their lives. Thus the Illinois legislature, knowing it was acting in conflict with the Adam Walsh Act, recently overrode the governor’s veto of a law exempting child offenders from online registration.
In the past, federal law required only that states register sexually violent offenders for 15 years. The new act requires states to register virtually anyone convicted of a sex offense. This would force some states to significantly expand their registries. While it may seem a good idea to place all convicted sex offenders on a registry, law enforcement officials and child safety advocates say that expanding the registry to include all offenders reduces its usefulness in helping law enforcement to identify and monitor individuals considered a real risk to the community.
The Adam Walsh Act also extends from 15 years to 25 years or life the time someone is on a registry and subject to community notification, without the possibility of petitioning to be removed. If Congress had consulted experts on sexual violence, it would have found that the longer a convicted sex offender lives offense-free in the community, the less likely he is to re-offend, which is why experts often advocate giving convicted sex offenders an opportunity to be released from registry requirements upon a showing of rehabilitation.
Implementing the changes required by the act will cost states a lot of money. At a legislative hearing in Arizona, witnesses testified that the state would lose between $700,000 and $800,000 in federal law enforcement grants if it didn’t comply with the law – but that it would cost millions of dollars to expand the state’s sex offender laws to comply with the Adam Walsh Act.
And there are other costs to implementing the act. Subjecting convicted sex offenders to community notification for the rest of their lives may do great harm – both to the individuals and to community safety. Offenders included on online sex offender registries endure shattered privacy, social ostracism, diminished employment and housing opportunities, harassment, and even vigilante violence. Their families suffer as well.
Unnecessarily expansive community notification laws may drive more offenders underground, away from supportive services like treatment, and away from the supervision and monitoring of law enforcement. Harsh enduring consequences also provide little incentive for former offenders to live without re-offending: as one registrant told Human Rights Watch, “No one believes I can change, so why even try?”
Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime prevention measures is a core governmental obligation. But states can address the real problem of sexual violence by refusing to adopt the Adam Walsh Act – and then limiting their registration and community notification laws to individuals identified as posing a real risk to the community.