What happened to nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford is every parents worst nightmare. In February 2005 she was abducted from her home in Florida, raped, and buried alive by a stranger, a next-door neighbor who had been twice convicted of molesting children. Over the past decade, several horrific crimes like Jessicas murder have captured massive media attention and fueled widespread fears that children are at high risk of assault by repeat sex offenders. Politicians have responded with a series of laws, including the sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws that are the subject of this report.
Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of specified crimes that involve sexual conduct to register with law enforcementregardless of whether the crimes involved children. So-called Megans Laws establish public access to registry information, primarily by mandating the creation of online registries that provide a former offenders criminal history, current photograph, current address, and other information such as place of employment. In many states everyone who is required to register is included on the online registry. 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 gatherfor example, schools, playgrounds, and daycare centers.
Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws. They reflect a deep public yearning for safety in a world that seems increasingly threatening. 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.
Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good:
The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them. Even assuming some public safety benefit, however, the laws can be reformed to reduce their adverse effects without compromising that benefit. Registration laws should be narrowed in scope and duration. Publicly accessible online registries should be eliminated, and community notification should be accomplished solely by law enforcement officials. Blanket residency restrictions should be abolished.
Proponents of sex offender registration and community notification believe they protect children in two ways: police have a list of likely suspects should a sex crime occur in the neighborhood in which a registered offender lives, and parents have information that will enable them to heighten their vigilance and to warn their children to stay away from particular people. Advocates for residency restrictions believe they will limit offenders access to children and their temptation or ability to commit new crimes. While these beliefs may seem intuitively correct, they are predicated on several widely shared but nonetheless mistaken premises. Given these faulty underpinnings, it is not surprising that there is little evidence that the laws have in fact reduced the threat of sexual abuse to children or others.
Sex offender laws are based on preventing the horrific crimes that inspired thembut the abduction, rape, and murder of a child by a stranger who is a previously convicted sex offender is a rare event. The laws offer scant protection for children from the serious risk of sexual abuse that they face from family members or acquaintances. Indeed, people children know and trust are responsible for over 90 percent of sex crimes against them.
In addition, sex offender laws are predicated on the widespread assumption that most people convicted of sex offenses will continue to commit such crimes if given the opportunity. Some politicians cite recidivism rates for sex offenders that are as high as 80-90 percent. In fact, most (three out of four) former sex offenders do not reoffend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders. Patty Wetterling, a prominent child safety advocate who founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation after her son was abducted in 1989, recently told Human Rights Watch,
The justifications offered for sex offender laws focus on sexually violent offenders. Yet people who have not committed violent or coercive offenses may nonetheless be required to register as sex offenders and be subject to community notification and residency restrictions. For example, in many states, people who urinate in public, teenagers who have consensual sex with each other, adults who sell sex to other adults, and kids who expose themselves as a prank are required to register as sex offenders.
Brandon M.s case is an example. Brandon was a senior in high school when he met a 14-year-old girl on a church youth trip. With her parents blessing, they began to date, and openly saw each other romantically for almost a year. When it was disclosed that consensual sexual contact had occurred, her parents pressed charges against Brandon and he was convicted of sexual assault and placed on the sex offender registry in his state. As a result, Brandon was fired from his job. He will be on the registry and publicly branded as a sex offender for the rest of his life. In his mothers words, I break down in tears several times a week. I know there are violent sexual predators that need to be punished, but this seems like punishment far beyond reasonable for what my son did.3
The over-breadth in scope is matched by over-breadth in duration: the length of time during which a former offender must register and be included in online registries is set arbitrarily, based on the nature of the crime of conviction and not on any assessment of the likelihood that the former offender continues to pose a safety threat. Indeed, legislators are steadily increasing the duration of registration requirements: in 17 states, registration is now for life. Yet former sex offenders are less and less likely to reoffend the longer they live offense-free.
Unfortunately, only a few states require or permit periodic individualized assessments of the risk to the community a former offender may pose before requiring initial or continued registration and community notification.
If former offenders simply had to register their whereabouts with the police, the adverse consequences for them would be minimal. But online sex offender registries brand everyone listed on them with a very public scarlet letter that signifies not just that they committed a sex offense in the past, but that by virtue of that fact they remain dangerous. With only a few exceptions, states do not impose any need to know limitations on who has access to the registrants information. With a national registry including every state registrants online profile due to be complete by 2009, information about previously convicted sex offenders will be available to anyone anywhere in the country, without restriction.
Most registries simply indicate the statutory name of the crime of which a person was convicted, for example, indecent liberties with a child. Such language does not provide useful information about what the offending conduct actually consisted of, and the public may understandably assume the worst. Jameel N. described for Human Rights Watch the public response to his inclusion on his states online registry:
Jameel N.s experience of public hostility is all too typical. Former 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.
Registrants and their families have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through their home windows, and feces left on their front doorsteps. They have been assaulted, stabbed, and had their homes burned by neighbors or strangers who discovered their status as a previously convicted sex offender. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed (two in 2006 and two in 2005) by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide, including a teenager who was required to register after he had exposed himself to girls on their way to gym class. Violence directed at registrants has injured others. The children of sex offenders have been harassed by their peers at school, and wives and girlfriends of offenders have been ostracized from social networks and at their jobs.
Among laws targeting sex offenders living in the community, residency restrictions may be the harshest as well as the most arbitrary. The laws can banish registrants from their already established homes, keep them from living with their families, and make entire towns off-limits to them, forcing them to live in isolated rural areas. For example, former sex offenders in Miami, Florida have been living under bridges, one of the few areas not restricted for them by the residency restriction laws of that city.
There is no evidence that prohibiting sex offenders from living near where children gather will protect children from sexual violence. Indeed, the limited research to date suggests the contrary: a child molester who does offend again is as likely to victimize a child found far from his home as he is one who lives or plays nearby. A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that individuals who committed another sex crime against a child made contact with their victim through a social relationship.
Moreover, the laws apply to all registered sex offenders regardless of whether their prior crimes involved children. It is hard to fathom what good comes from prohibiting a registered offender whose victim was an adult woman from living near a school bus stop. Stories of the senseless impact of residency restrictions are legion. For example, Georgias residency restriction law has forced a 26-year-old married woman to move from her home because it is too close to a daycare center. She is registered as a sex offender because she had oral sex with a 15-year-old when she was 17.
Some lawmakers admit to another purpose for residency restriction laws. Georgia State House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, who sponsored the states law banning registrants from living within 1,000 feet of places where children gather, stated during a floor debate, My intent personally is to make [residency restrictions] so onerous on those that are convicted of [sex] offenses they will want to move to another state.5 Yet people who have committed sex offenses must live somewhere. For those who do pose a threat to public safety, they should be able to reside in communities where they can receive the supervision and treatment they need, rather than be forced to move to isolated rural areas or become homeless.
In most states, children (age 18 and younger) who are convicted of sex offenses can be subject to registration, community notification, and residency restrictions. The recently passed federal Adam Walsh Act requires states to register children as young as 14. Some of their offenses are indeed seriousfor example, raping much younger children. But children are also subjected to sex offender laws for conduct that, while frowned upon, does not suggest a danger to the community, including consensual sex, playing doctor, and exposing themselves. Some of the conduct reflects the impulsiveness and perhaps difficulty with boundaries that many teenagers experience and that most will outgrow with maturity. In some cases it seems nothing short of irrational to label children as sex offenders. Human Rights Watch spoke with a father whose 10-year-old son was adjudicated for touching the genitals of his five-year-old cousin. He told us, My son doesnt really understand what sex is, so its hard to help him understand why he has to register as a sex offender.6
According to child development experts, many children move past the misdeeds of their youth, although some will require special support and treatment to do so. Although there is little statistical research on recidivism by youth sex offenders, the studies that have been done suggest recidivism rates are quite low. For example, in one study only 4 percent of youth arrested for a sex crime recidivated. Research also indicates that most adult offenders were not formerly youth offenders: less than 10 percent of adults who commit sex offenses had been juvenile sex offenders. Applying registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws to juvenile offenders does nothing to prevent crimes by the 90 percent of adults who were not convicted of sex offenses as juveniles. It will, however, cause great harm to those who, while they are young, must endure the stigma of being identified as and labeled a sex offender, and who as adults will continue to bear that stigma, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Current registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws may be counterproductive, impeding rather than promoting public safety. For example, the proliferation of people required to register even though their crimes were not serious makes it harder for law enforcement to determine which sex offenders warrant careful monitoring. Unfettered online access to registry information facilitatesif not encouragesneighbors, employers, colleagues, and others to shun and ostracize former offendersdiminishing the likelihood of their successful reintegration into communities. Residency restrictions push former offenders away from the supervision, treatment, stability, and supportive networks they may need to build and maintain successful, law abiding lives. For example, Iowa officials told Human Rights Watch that they are losing track of registrants who have been made transient by the states residency restriction law or who have dropped out of sight rather than comply with the law. As one Iowa sheriff said, We are less safe as a community now than we were before the residency restrictions.7
Many child safety and rape prevention advocates believe that millions of dollars are being misspent on registration and community notification programs that do not get at the real causes of child sexual abuse and adult sexual violence. They would like to see more money spent on prevention, education, and awareness programs for children and adults, counseling for victims of sexual violence, and programs that facilitate treatment and the transition back to society for convicted sex offenders. As one child advocate told Human Rights Watch, When a sex offender succeeds in living in the community, we are all safer.8
Sexual violence and abuse against children are, unfortunately, a worldwide problem. Yet the United States is the only country in the world that has such a panoply of measures governing the lives of former sex offenders. It is the only country Human Rights Watch knows of with blanket laws prohibiting people with prior convictions for sex crimes from living within designated areas. To our knowledge, six other countries (Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Japan, and the United Kingdom) have sex offender registration laws, but the period required for registration is usually short and the information remains with the police. South Korea is the only country other than the United States that has community notification laws.
Officials in Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom have considered and in each case rejected the adoption of universal community notification laws (although in some cases, police are authorized to notify the public about the presence of a convicted sex offender in the neighborhood). After reviewing the experience of the United States, they concluded that there is little evidence that community notification protects the public from sex crimes, and that such laws are often accompanied by vigilante violence against registrants.
Increasingly severe registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws have encountered little public opposition. Given the widespread belief in the myths about sex offenders inherent and incurable dangerousness, it is perhaps not surprising that very few public officials have questioned the laws or their efficacy.
Proponents of sex offender laws say their first priority is protecting the rights of victims. Yet few public officials who have supported registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws have done so based on a careful assessment of the nature of sex crimes and the best way to prevent sexual violence. And few public officials have acknowledged their responsibility to protect the well-being and fundamental rights of all residentsincluding those who have been convicted of crimes.
Protecting the community and limiting unnecessary harm to former offenders are not mutually incompatible goals. To the contrary, one enhances and reinforces the other. In Minnesota, state legislators and government officials, in consultation with child safety and womens rights advocates, have constructed carefully tailored evidence-based laws that aim to prevent sexual violence by safely integrating former sex offenders into the community, restricting their rights only to the extent necessary to achieve that goal. Before they are released from prison, convicted sex offenders in Minnesota are assessed by a panel of experts, who determine whether an individual should be subject to registration and community notification, and if so for how long. The panel has the authority to periodically reassess the convicted sex offenders level of dangerousness and adjust his or her registration and community notification requirements accordingly. Community notification is on a need-to-know basis. As the Minnesota community notification law states, The extent of the information disclosed and the community to whom disclosure is made must be related to the level of danger posed by the offender, to the offenders pattern of offending behavior, and to the need of community members for information to enhance their individual and collective safety. Minnesota has not adopted universal residency restriction legislation. Instead, law enforcement and the assessment panel jointly assess whether an individual on probation or parole should be subject to residency restrictions and what those restrictions should be.
The recently passed federal Adam Walsh Act forces states to either dramatically increase their registration and community notification restrictions or lose federal law enforcement grant money. While some states have rushed to amend their sex offender laws to comply with the Act, other states are considering not adopting the provisions, citing a concern that they will not benefit public safety.
As a human rights organization, Human Rights Watch seeks to prevent sexual violence and to ensure accountability for people who violate the rights of others to be free from sexual abuse. We are convinced that public safety will be as protected, if not more so, by modified registration laws targeted only at former offenders who pose a high or medium risk of reoffending, as determined through an individualized risk assessment and classification process, and by community notification that is undertaken by law enforcement on a need-to-know basis. We are also convinced that there is no legitimate basis for blanket residency restrictions. We do not object to time-limited restrictions that are imposed on individual offenders on a case-by-case basis, for example, as a condition of parole. But a wholesale banishment of a class of individuals should have no place in the United States.
Reforming sex offender laws will not be easy. At a time when national polls indicate that Americans fear sex offenders more than terrorists,9 legislators will have to show they have the intelligence and courage to create a society that is safe yet still protects the human rights of everyone.
1 Ryan Keith, Illinois Measure Would Move Some from Sex Offender List, Associated Press, June 24, 2006.
2 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Patty Wetterling, January 8, 2007.
3 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Brandon M.s mother, November 13, 2006.
4 Email communication from Jameel N. to Human Rights Watch, June 4, 2005.
5 Peter Whoriskey, Some Curbs on Sex Offenders Called Ineffective, Inhumane, Washington Post, November 22, 2006.
6 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with the father of a minor who was adjudicated for a sex offense, October 27, 2006.
7 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with an Iowa sheriff who requested anonymity, August 15, 2006.
8 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Alison Feigh, child safety specialist, Jacob Wetterling Foundation, September 8, 2006.
9 The Gallup Poll, Sex Offenders, video report, June 9, 2005, http://www.galluppoll.com/videoArchive/?ci=16708&pg= (accessed March 19, 2007). The poll found that 66 percent of people surveyed were very concerned about sex offenders, compared to 52 percent who were concerned about violent crime and 36 percent who were concerned about terrorism.