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US: Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good

End Registration of Juveniles, Residency Restrictions and Online Registries

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, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urges the reform of state and federal registration and community notification laws, and the elimination of residency restrictions, because they violate basic rights of former offenders.

The 146-page report, “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States,” is the first comprehensive study of US sex offender policies, their public safety impact, and the effect they have on former offenders and their families. During two years of investigation for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted over 200 interviews with victims of sexual violence and their relatives, former offenders, law enforcement and government officials, treatment providers, researchers, and child safety advocates.

“Human Rights Watch shares the public’s goal of protecting children from sex abuse,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “But current laws are ill-conceived and poorly crafted. Protecting children requires a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach than politicians have been willing to support.”

In many states, registration covers everyone convicted of a sexual crime, which can range from child rape to consensual teenage sex, and regardless of their potential future threat to children. Unfettered public access to online sex-offender registries with no “need-to-know” restrictions exposes former offenders to the risk that individuals will act on this information in irresponsible and even unlawful ways. There is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence. Residency restrictions banish former offenders from entire towns and cities, forcing them to live far from homes, families, jobs and treatment, and hindering law-enforcement supervision. Residency restrictions are counterproductive to public safety and harmful to former offenders.

Sex offender laws reflect public concern that children are at grave risk of sexual abuse by strangers who are repeat offenders. As the report documents, however, the real risks children face are quite different: government statistics indicate that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members or trusted authority figures, and by someone who has not previously been convicted of a sex offense.

In addition, the laws reflect the widely shared but erroneous belief that “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” Authoritative studies indicate that three out of four adult offenders do not reoffend. Moreover, treatment can be effective even for people who have committed serious sex crimes.

“Politicians didn’t do their homework before enacting these sex offender laws,” said Sarah Tofte, US program researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead they have perpetuated myths about sex offenders and failed to deal with the complex realities of sexual violence against children.”

Registration Policies

Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of a vast array of crimes that involve sexual conduct to register their addresses and other information with law enforcement agencies. Because registration requirements are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, there are more than 600,000 registered sex offenders in the US, including individuals convicted of non-violent crimes such as consensual sex between teenagers, prostitution, and public urination, as well as those who committed their only offenses decades ago.

“The public believes everyone on a sex offender registry is dangerous,” said Fellner. “But what’s the point of requiring registration by a teenager who exposed himself as a high-school prank or even by someone who molested a child 30 years ago?”

Most states do not make individualized risk assessments before requiring registration. Nor do they offer former offenders a way to get off the registry upon a showing of rehabilitation or years of lawful behavior.

Human Rights Watch found there is scant justification for ever registering juvenile offenders, even those who have committed serious offenses. Most are likely to outgrow such behavior, particularly if given treatment. Recidivism rates for juvenile offenders are extremely low, and few adult offenders ever committed sex crimes as youth.

In “No Easy Answers,” Human Rights Watch recommends that registration requirements be limited to people assessed to pose a real risk of committing another serious sex offense.

Online Registries

Because of community notification laws, all states now have publicly accessible online sex offender registries that provide a former offender’s criminal history, photograph, current address, and often other information such as license plate numbers.

The laws do not limit access to online registries: anyone with internet access can find out who is registered anywhere in the country. The consequences to registrants are devastating. Their privacy is shattered. Many cannot get or keep jobs or find affordable housing. Registrants’ children have been harassed at school; registrants’ spouses have also been forced to leave their jobs. Former offenders included on online registries have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through windows, and feces left on their doorsteps. They have been beaten, burned, stabbed, and had their homes set on fire. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges the desire of parents to know if dangerous offenders live next-door. But carefully tailored community notification, provided directly by law enforcement agents, would supply them with the information they want while minimizing the harm to former offenders.

Residency Restrictions

A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance (typically 500 to 2,500 feet) of places where children gather, for example, schools, playgrounds and daycare centers. Many of these restrictions apply even to offenders who were not convicted of abusing children. With regard to offenders who did victimize children, available data suggest that prohibiting them from living near any place where children gather does not reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. Many law enforcement officials and sex offender treatment providers emphasize the importance of stability and support in reducing recidivism. They decry residency restrictions as counterproductive because they isolate and push underground people who may need family contact, treatment and supervision. Existing parole and probation laws permit individualized restrictions and conditions to be placed on former offenders when appropriate.

Human Rights Watch concludes residency restriction laws should be eliminated.

“Residency restrictions solve nothing,” said Tofte. “They simply make it nearly impossible for former offenders to put their lives back together.”

The Human Rights Watch report includes several cases of people whose lives were significantly harmed by the restrictions. One woman, who as a high-school student had oral sex with another teenager, had to leave her home because it is near a daycare center. A softball coach, who six years ago grabbed the buttocks of a 12-year-old team member, cannot live with his wife and family because their home falls within a restricted zone.

The Adam Walsh Act

The federal Adam Walsh Act, passed in 2006, will exacerbate the problems with state sex offender laws. It forces states to either dramatically increase the scope and duration of registration and community notification restrictions – including requiring states to register youths as young as 14 – or lose some federal law enforcement grant money. Compliance with the Adam Walsh Act will preclude states from adopting more carefully calibrated and cost-effective registration and community notification policies. At least some states are debating whether the costs of complying with the law outweigh the benefits. Human Rights Watch urges reform of the Adam Walsh Act.


In “No Easy Answers,” Human Rights Watch makes a number of recommendations to state governments:

· Refuse to change registration and community notification laws to meet Adam Walsh requirements;

· Eliminate residency restriction laws;

· Limit registration requirements to people who have been convicted of serious crimes and who have been individually assessed to pose a significant risk of reoffending; and,

· Prevent unlimited dissemination of registry information by eliminating publicly accessible online registries. Community notification should be undertaken only by law enforcement officers and only about those registrants who pose a significant risk of reoffending.

“Everyone has the right to live free of sexual violence.” said Tofte. “States should craft laws that will protect this right in a fair and sensible way.”

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