Is It Time to Change How We Treat Sex Offenders?

The New York Times is showcasing a new 5-minute documentary called Sex Offender Village:

We visited a small community in Florida known as “Miracle Village,” where more than 100 registered sex offenders have settled since 2009. The community has become a rare refuge for them as they try to rebuild their lives in one of the only communities that will have them: stringent residency requirements make it almost impossible for them to live anywhere else.

The two filmmakers present two very different perspectives: Lisa reps victims, David, abusers. However, as the documentary shows, the US justice system creates victims of its own by pointlessly restricting convicts, many of whom were juveniles when convicted, and/or are guilty of victimless crimes.

“Every high-profile sex crime spawns a rush to do something about the ‘predators’ among us.”

The rush to legislate creates two main problems. First, badly written laws give prosecutors too much latitude, which they use to slap harmless people with permanent, debilitating “sex-offender” labels. People like William Elliot, who had to register for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Whether you think that’s right or wrong, it defies reason to say that William’s crime means he will pose a threat to his neighbors for the rest of his life.

Besides being a terrible injustice to these men and women, and it also weakens the power of the label. How seriously should you take it when a sex-offender moves in next store when you don’t whether he or she is a rapist or public urinator? When teenagers are branded for life for sexting, the label loses much of its meaning.

In the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offenses have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless. The term “sex offender” simply covers too wide a range now, painting the few truly heinous crimes and the many relatively innocuous ones with the same broad brush. This overly broad approach wastes resources that could be better spent, for instance, on clearing the huge and unforgivable backlog of untested rape evidence kits.

The second main problem is that the sex offender residency restrictions are ineffective and too severe. Even Megan Kanka’s parents (Megan is the young girl for whom Megan’s Law, which created the national sex offender registry, is named) want to see the law reformed. They are dismayed that the law has been used to punish juveniles, who make up a quarter of registered sex offenders, and commit more than a third of sex crimes against minors, according to Billtrack. Shana Rowan, Executive Director of Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry, USA FAIR, recently wrote an op-ed about how the registry actually abuses young people:

Human Rights Watch released the compelling report “Raised on the Registry,” last week, which exposes the far-reaching negative consequences of forcing juveniles to publicly register as sex offenders. Ranging from families forced to live apart, lifelong stigmatism for offenders convicted as pre-teens, inability to provide for their families due to lack of employment to self-harm and suicide in several cases, the ramifications of public registration for juveniles are extensive and severe. Any serious modernization of Megan’s Law must include a reassessment of placing juvenile offenders on the public registry.

And for what? The only thing residency restrictions have been proven to do is ruin lives. The op-ed points out that “a 2010 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found no correlation between failure to register and sexual recidivism.” Sex offenders had, even before the registry, one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the criminal justice system. One study showed just 5% of sex offenders were re-arrested for a sex crime within three years of getting out of prison and that 43% were re-arrested for any type of crime, compared to 68% of criminals who aren’t sex offenders. In addition, it’s important to remember that over 90% of children who are abused are victims not of strangers, but of people they know.

As the documentary makers put it, “Our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.” To right this wrong, two things need to happen immediately. First, laws around sex abuse absolutely need to be rewritten to so minors and those who commit victimless crimes such as sexting are no longer forced to register. Right now, in 28 states a 17-year-old boy can land on the registry for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. This will give these young people a chance to become contributing members of society while removing non-threatening individuals from the registry so people can actually take it seriously.

Second, residency restrictions need to be abolished until they are proven to be effective. Making life exceedingly difficult for offenders can only be justified if it results in keeping people safe.


  1. Dorothy

    Lisa Ling’s episode on this subject for Our America made me think about this too. I didn’t realize the Megan’s Law parents were for reform either. Great write-up.

  2. Stanley Carlson

    I wonder if Weiner will end up in one of these villages after his conviction for “sexting” that is in the news now. He probably won’t even lose his office or end up on the sex offender registry.

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