With the goal of increasing the effective protection of children and others from sexual violence while protecting former offenders from unnecessary, unjust, and even counterproductive laws, Human Rights Watch makes the following recommendations for changes in federal and state legislation.
- All provisions of the Adam Walsh Act that deal with state registration and community notification requirements should be repealed.
- If Congress does not repeal the Adam Walsh Act requirements as they pertain to state registration and community notification, states should not adopt the Adam Walsh Act provisions to their registration and community notification laws.
Former offenders who have committed minor, non-violent offenses, such as prostitution between adults; non-lascivious indecency offenses, such as streaking and public urination; and consensual sexual activity with a minor who is within five years of age of the offender (statutory rape) should not be required to register.
No offender who was under the age of 18 at the time of his or her offense should be required to register. If states do require child offenders to register, then they should do so only after a panel of qualified experts determines that the child poses a high risk of sexual reoffense, and that public safety cannot be adequately protected through any means other than the child being subject to registration. A determination that registration is necessary should be reviewed at least on an annual basis for as long as the registration requirement lasts.
States should institute mechanisms by which offenders are removed from registries if they are exonerated; their convictions have been overturned, set aside, or otherwise vitiated; or if their conduct is no longer considered criminal.
States should regularly review all registration information to ensure its accuracy.
- Former offenders should not be required to register with their schools or places of employment. Most state laws require, and employers always have the option of running, a criminal background check for prospective employees who will be working with children.
Registration should be limited to former offenders who pose a high or medium risk of committing a serious crime in the future, either of sexually abusing children or committing a violent sex crime against adults. The risk should be assessed on a case-by-case basis for each convicted sex offender, using tools that have predictive validity and take into consideration a variety of factors found by research to be associated with recidivism, including the nature of the crime, prior offending history, the age of the offender at the time of the crime, treatment or therapy history, and the length of time an individual has remained offense-free.
Former offenders considered low-risk for reoffending, on the basis of individual assessment, should not be required to register.
The period of inclusion on the registry for former offenders assessed as medium- and high-risk should be initially determined by his or her individual risk assessment and then be subject to periodic review with a view to extension or termination. An initial determination of lifetime inclusion should not be permitted. At periodic review, registrants should be able to present evidence of rehabilitation, change in life circumstances, incapacitation (for example, disease or disability) or substantial time living in the community without reoffense in order to obtain termination of the requirement to register or to have their assigned level of risk changed. After a fixed period of time, the burden should shift from the registrant to the state to prove that a registrant poses a public safety risk and must remain on the registry.
- Access to sex offender registries should be limited to law enforcement.
- Law enforcement officials should only release information about registered sex offenders on a need-to-know basis. This would include notification to the individual(s) victimized by the offender. When determining who else in the community should be notified, law enforcement officials should weigh factors such as the size of the community, the nature of the offense, the level of reoffense risk at which the registrant has been assessed, and the likelihood that access to the information will enhance the recipients personal safety or that of their children.
- Law enforcement officials should eliminate the use of posters, flyers, and other easily replicable materials to alert communities of the presence of a registered sex offender in their neighborhood. They should inform community members individually, using accurate and responsible language to describe the potential threat posed by the registrant.
- Law enforcement and other local officials must recognize their responsibility and authority to keep all community members safe, including people who have been convicted of sex offenses. In deciding the method and scope of community notification, officials should be required to take into consideration the potential for community hostility against registrants and take any necessary steps to mitigate the potential hostility.
- States should enact laws allowing all registrants to appear periodically before a panel of qualified experts to review the requirement that law enforcement publicly release their personal information. Registrants should be able to present evidence of rehabilitation, change in life circumstances, incapacitation (for example, disease or disability), or substantial time without reoffense in order to terminate community notification requirements.
- Local officials should work with the Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) and local agencies or organizations with the capacity to conduct community meetings aimed at safe reintegration of registrants when they move into a neighborhood. Community meetings should be designed as an opportunity for education about where the risk for sexual victimization lies and how to prevent sexual abuse before it occurs. Organizations to include in the development and implementation of these community meetings should be victim advocacy groups, sexual violence prevention and response professionals, and sex offender treatment and management agencies.
- States should eliminate public access to online registries of sex offenders as a form of community notification.
- States that do maintain online registries should only include information about offenders assigned a high level of risk, and only for so long as they are individually determined to pose such a risk.
- Online registry search capabilities should only permit targeted searches (for example, by specific personal name or zip code). No member of the public should be able to search the entire database. States should also take steps to preclude the possibility of registry information being found via internet search engines.
- Accountability for those who search online databases should be ensured by requiring the database user to specify the purpose for the search, and to provide his or her name and zip code (with such information kept confidential and accessible only by state officials and law enforcement).
- Online registry databases should provide enough information to enable a layperson user to understand the nature of the sex offense of which the offender was convicted and the registrants risk of recidivism. This should include more information than the identification of the statute he or she violated. Databases should indicate when the offense was committed, how long has passed since the registrant was released from incarceration, and contain both the registrants and the victims age at the time of the offense.
- The information about a registrant revealed online should be limited to what is necessary to promote public safety. For example, information such as place of employment or place of education should not routinely be available.
- Congress and state legislatures should incorporate stronger prohibitions against and penalties for misuse of online registration and community notification information to harass, threaten, or injure registrants or their family members, or to discriminate unreasonably against registrants in the denial of housing, education, or other necessary benefits and services. Online registries must prominently display warnings against misuse of information on the registry. Misuse of registration information should be vigorously prosecuted.
- Registrants should have a periodic opportunity to petition to be removed from the online registry. Registrants should be able to present evidence of rehabilitation, change in life circumstances, incapacitation (for example, disease or disability) or substantial time without reoffense in order to terminate community notification requirements.
- Congress should eliminate public access to the national sex offender registry.
- If the national sex offender registry is to be maintained, Congress should direct the Department of Justice to ensure that the national sex offender registry includes only such information from state registries as is consistent with the above criteria.
- Neither states nor localities should have residency restriction laws that apply to entire classes of former offenders. Authorized residency restrictions should be limited to individually tailored restrictions for certain offenders as a condition of the terms of his or her probation, parole, or other mandated supervision.
- Federal and state governments should support sex offender treatment programs as a key component of sex offender management.
- The Department of Justice and states should encourage and fund research to assess and compare the effectiveness of different strategies to prevent the perpetration and reoffense of sexual violence. This research should include efforts to identify and assess the impact that registration, community notification, and residency restrictions have on registrants, their families, and communities.
- The Department of Justice should continue to support and fully fund the Center for Sex Offender Management, a national project of the Department of Justices Office of Justice Programs, to provide training and education to communities to facilitate the safe reintegration of registrants.
- Federal, state, and local governments should support collaborative efforts between citizens, law enforcement, offenders, victim advocacy and sexual violence prevention groups, and specialized sex offender treatment providers to enhance the successful reintegration of convicted sex offenders into the community in ways that promote community safety.
- Federal, state, and local governments should support efforts to develop a range of strategies to prevent sexual abuse that go beyond control and treatment of former offenders, including educational programs for families, treatment and other resources for survivors of sexual violence, promotion of safety precautions by youth and adults, and those that treat the reduction of sexual violence as a public health campaign.