In an effort to decrease the incidence of sexual assault, legislators have passed regulatory laws aimed at reducing recidivism among convicted sexual offenders. As a result, sex offenders living in the United States are bound by multiple policies, including registration, community notification, monitoring via a global positioning system, civil commitment, and residency, loitering, and Internet restrictions.
These policies have led to multiple collateral consequences, creating an ominous environment that inhibits successful reintegration and may contribute to an increasing risk for recidivism. In fact, evidence on the effectiveness of these laws suggests that they may not prevent recidivism or sexual violence and result in more harm than good.
Every year, an estimated women are raped 1 , 2 and 3. Over the past 14 years, legislation has evolved to ensure this focus, but the effectiveness of these policies in curbing the incidence of sexual violence is questionable. I review the current status of laws related to registered sexual offenders RSOs and discuss why they may be ineffective in preventing sexually violent crimes.
Initially, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act 5 was created to help law enforcement officials track sex offenders and thus, theoretically, reduce the likelihood that they would recidivate. Under this regulatory law, convicted sex offenders were obligated to register and verify their current names and addresses with local police. In May , Megan's Law 6 was passed, amending the Wetterling Act by requiring states to establish systems for making registry information available to the public through methods of community notification.
In doing so, Megan's Law made photographs, names, and addresses of registered sex offenders available to the public via the Internet and other forms of community notification. On July 27, , President George W. Interestingly, a recent analysis indicated that the cost of implementing AWA far outweighs the loss states would incur by the reduction in Byrne grant funds.
The first title of AWA, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, provides states with minimum registration and community notification procedures in their management of registered sex offenders. For some registered sexual offenders, the AWA mandates will result in increased or changed registration duties.
Some of the requirements under AWA include but are not limited to the following: In addition, Title III of AWA mandates civil commitment for certain dangerous offenders, and Title IV makes it illegal for a registered sex offender to sponsor a family member, such as a wife, husband, or child for permanent residency in the United States.
As with Megan's Law, AWA was developed by the government in an effort to protect the public from registered sex offenders who are likely to repeat their offenses. Who would not want to take the toughest measures to protect children and families from someone who has committed a sexually based offense? However, intuition is not science, and a closer look at the laws' purpose, intent, and outcomes reveals that problems do exist.
The philosophy of the Wetterling Act, Megan's Law, and AWA is that society must be protected against a group of dangerous criminals who pose a high risk for reoffense. Furthermore, in New York, of the 11 registered sex offenders released from prison between and , 2. According to the US Department of Justice, 18 registered sex offenders are the least likely class of criminals to reoffend, with 3. Finally, Harris and Hanson 16 found that the risk for recidivating decreases significantly over time, with most reoffenses occurring within 5 years of the original conviction.
Given the limitations in the recidivism data, it is difficult to make definitive conclusions about the rate at which sex offenders repeat their crimes. The definition or interpretation of recidivism varies in many studies, with some using arrest or conviction data for any crime, such as a parole violation, and others using arrest or conviction data for a sexually based crime.
Furthermore, even the definition of sexual assault varies. The Uniform Crime Reports collected by the Department of Justice have methodological problems and typically only include data on violent rape, when sexual assault includes many other acts such as statutory rape, possession of child pornography, and indecent exposure. These inconsistencies can result in either overestimates or underestimates of recidivism rates. That most sexual crimes go unreported is another significant limitation of the recidivism data.
We do know, however, that most new sexually based crimes are committed by someone not on the registry. As such, although it is reasonable to conclude that many sexually based crimes go unreported, it may be incorrect to assume that the bulk of these unreported crimes are being committed by the registered sex offenders in the United States today. With that in mind, the underreporting of sexual crimes could mean that recidivism data are underestimated.
However, findings from the Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children revealed that stranger abductions occurred in the United States in ; in 56 of those cases, the victim was sexually assaulted, indicating that only a small percentage of sexually based crimes against children occur via stereotypical abductions.
Another common theme driving the proliferation of laws is the perception that rates of sexual crimes, pervasive in our society, are higher now than ever L. Sample, PhD, unpublished data, This statement is difficult to operationalize because no formal procedures exist for uniformly reporting sexually based crimes with the exception of forcible rape, leaving national trends in other registerable offenses such as statutory rape, voyeurism, and indecent exposure essentially immeasurable.
With this in mind, forcible rapes declined significantly in the early s, when violent crime in general was decreasing. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decreasing trend in rapes from 2. However, after decades of decreasing rape trends, recent data indicates that, since the passage of community notification and other laws, they may be increasing. Initial data on sexual assault trends since the inception of Megan's Law in the late 's suggest that rates have not significantly decreased 29 , 30 and that, in many states such as Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, Vermont, Indiana, and Illinois, rates may even be increasing.
Empirical research examining Megan's Law has generally indicated that community notification is not effective in preventing sexually based crimes 24 , 29 , 39 — 46 and may actually create a context wherein the risk of recidivism increases. That study's results must be interpreted with caution because the reduction in recidivism for registered sex offenders mirrored a statewide trend in reduced recidivism for other types of crimes.
Recidivism rates were declining prior to community notification laws, and after an year downward trend, the recidivism rates of registered sex offenders in Washington began to increase in , the year Megan's Law was implemented.
More recently, effectiveness studies from New Jersey 44 and New York 24 concluded that Megan's Law has had no significant impact on rates of recidivism or sexual violence, suggesting that the costs of implementing such laws may outweigh the benefits.
However, community notification has many collateral consequences for both community members and registered sex offenders. According to Levenson et al.
This fear can lead to community-wide hysteria, which has occurred in many towns. Lawrence County, New York in response to her new registered sex offender neighbor. One part of the letter read I have slept approximately a combined 5 hours in the past 3 nights because I wake up in a panic and I need to get up and make sure that my children are okay. These kinds of reactions have led to a proliferation of registered sex offender laws above and beyond community notification.
Still others have successfully passed laws banning registered sex offenders from wearing Halloween costumes or mandating them to be indoors with outdoor lights off on Halloween night. In Louisiana in , Governor Bobby Jindal signed SB , a bill making chemical castration through administration of the hormone medroxyprogesterone mandatory for certain offenders. Many registered sex offenders now also face restrictions related to employment and loitering and, most widespread, restrictions in where they can live.
As of August , more than 20 states and hundreds of localities nationwide had passed residency restrictions, and many more were considering them. In California, Proposition 83 also known as Jessica's Law was passed in to limit registered sex offenders from living within feet of a school or a park.
As a result of this ordinance, approximately registered sex offenders were told to move, with many ending up homeless. In Miami, Florida, for example, residency restrictions were so strict— feet from schools, playgrounds, licensed day-care centers, and parks—that the only location registered sex offenders' probation officers would approve for housing was underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge connecting Miami Beach to Miami.
Who would want a registered sex offender living near children? When communities successfully get them to move, community members' fear subsides, thus making them feel safe.
But there are logical problems with residency restrictions that could result in communities having a false sense of security. Residency restrictions could violate registered sex offenders' fundamental human and constitutional rights, for example. In most cases, the laws are being applied retroactively to those who have served their time, which is a likely violation of ex post facto application of new laws as well as rights against double jeopardy. A case in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, serves as an example.
A nonrecidivating year-old man convicted in of a sex crime petitioned the court to relieve him of his duty to abide by residency restrictions.
He had lived in his home for 7 years, a home that he shared with his wife and children; in July , he was forced to move because his home was within feet of a church, a violation of the new residency restrictions.
Residency restrictions were developed on the basis of the assumptions that 1 registered sex offenders are at a high risk for recidivism, 2 sexual crimes are committed by strangers who lurk in areas where children congregate in an attempt to stereotypically abduct them, 3 all registered sex offenders have committed crimes against children, and 4 children and families are protected from sexual crimes if a registered sex offender does not live in their neighborhood.
I addressed the first 2 assumptions earlier; recidivism rates among registered sex offenders are generally low, and most sexually based crimes are committed by someone known to the victim. Individuals who are required to register as sex offenders are those who have committed crimes against not only children but adults as well. Although the list of registerable sex offenses varies by state, registered sex offenders are also classified as those who have, for instance, possessed child pornography, solicited prostitution, participated in exhibitionism, or engaged in indecent exposure including urinating in public , voyeurism, or oral or anal sex.
Juveniles who have had consensual sexual relations with another juvenile also frequently fall under this category. In the United States in , for example, children and adolescents younger than 18 years were arrested at a higher rate than any other age group e. Furthermore, as mentioned, residency restrictions may provide a false sense of security in communities where registered sex offenders do not live. This makes intuitive sense. Residency restrictions simply mandate where a registered sex offender can and cannot live.
It is possible for those few who seek to reoffend to drive or walk to a location if their intent is to commit another sex offense. Those who are classified as high risk have a high potential for recidivating, whereas those who are classified as low risk are not likely to recidivate. The outcome of a high-risk classification is severe and includes but is not limited to additional registration requirements, community notification, residency restrictions, GPS monitoring, and potential civil confinement.
Determinations of risk level are usually made on the basis of the outcome of an actuarial assessment. However, the chances of correctly predicting future behavior increase when the instruments are valid. Although a thorough discussion of the psychometric properties of these tools is beyond the scope of this review, research indicates that the validity of the tools is questionable. In light of this, one must question whether moderate validity is acceptable in these cases. In , the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act 65 was implemented, requiring all institutions of higher education to monitor registered sex offenders who register at their schools.
Many institutions place additional admissions restrictions on registered sex offenders. At Eastern Oregon University, registered sex offenders can be denied admission if their coursework requires them to have close contact with an individual in a private setting.
If the school perceives that the risk to the campus community is high, then admission can be denied. If the registered sex offender is granted acceptance, the campus police must take measures to notify the campus community, including posting the information on a Web site, contacting classmates and professors, and posting flyers around campus.
For example, the Human Rights Watch conducted a 2-year study on the collateral consequences of the designation and reported the effects that it has on registered sex offenders' ability to secure employment and thus income. Results showed, more often than not, that registered sex offenders have a difficult time holding a job. The report cited cases of individuals who were fired from long-term employment when their status as a registered sex offender became public.
In some states, laws mandate that employer information be included as part of any community notification. This could also serve as a deterrent to employment. A final consequence for registered sex offenders is vigilantism, ostracism, and community segregation.
Explicit within Megan's Law is the disclaimer that the registry cannot be used to threaten or harass registered sex offenders. However, many such cases have occurred. Sample and Kadleck 72 interviewed 35 Illinois legislators to examine their perceptions of sex offenders and how those perceptions might influence policy.
According to one legislator: I wouldn't say this in some crowds, but we have documented cases of vigilantism with people going to the wrong house or beating up the wrong guy. That's what I was afraid of.