A false sense of security is the only kind there is. - Michael Meade
On August 16th, a federal appeals panel in Washington, D.C. rejected a challenge to the District of Columbia’s sex offender registry on the grounds that it is a “civil system of registry” (like driver’s licenses) and “not an additional [and unconstitutional] criminal penalty.” This is, of course, total bullshit; registries restrict where registrants are allowed to live (often to the point of making it virtually impossible for them to live anywhere and exposing them to police persecution via shaming tactics and nuisance charges); they violate registrants’ right to privacy and safety by publishing their names and pictures online and in print, thus making them targets for harassment and even murder; and they restrict registrants to low-paying, dead-end jobs, and force them to modify their behavior in bizarre ways (such as turning their lights off at Halloween, posting signs in their yards or answering their doors with the phrase, “I’m a registered sex offender”). Even when registrants travel, they may be branded by huge orange “sex offender” labels on their driver’s licenses or state IDs. To pretend all this isn’t punishment is disingenuous in the extreme; in fact the only support the court could come up with for this outrageous judgment was that “the registry is housed in an administrative agency, not in a court office or in an agency charged with carrying out punishment.” By that logic, beating someone to death with a desk stapler isn’t murder because a stapler isn’t generally used as a weapon.
But even if you believe that sex offender registries are constitutional, even if you believe that a lifetime of punishment for a non-capital crime isn’t excessive, and even if you ignore the fact that 95% of the people on such registries are there for non-violent “offenses” which don’t involve children (such as soliciting prostitutes, public urination or older teenagers having sex with younger ones), there’s yet another argument against the registries: They don’t work, as detailed in this August 18th Chicago Tribune column by Steve Chapman:
…Sex offender registries once sounded like an urgent necessity. They came in reaction to publicized crimes in which children died at the hands of convicted sex offenders. One of the most shocking involved a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, who in 1994 was raped and strangled by a paroled child molester living across the street from her home. New Jersey enacted “Megan’s Law,” subjecting sex offenders to registration and community notification…Today, all 50 states maintain registries and make at least some of the information available to the public. But this was a reasonable notion that has been damaged by indiscriminate expansion. It’s one thing to notify neighbors when a serial rapist moves in. Many states, however, lump frisky teens in with violent adults. Others…include mopes who were caught trolling for prostitutes or urinating in public. Some states also put broad curbs on where convicted sex offenders may live. In Miami, many of them have taken up residence under a causeway for lack of an alternative. This outcome may not warrant sympathy, but it makes it harder for police and citizens to keep tabs on them.
Such flaws would be of minimal consequence if the laws served to prevent crime. The surprising revelation is they don’t. A 2008 report funded by the U.S. Justice Department found the original Megan’s Law in New Jersey to be a nonevent. The policy, researchers documented, “showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses” and “has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses.” The zero effect had a cost above zero — nearly $4 million annually for the 15 counties included in the study. A more comprehensive study was undertaken by Amanda Agan, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, and published recently in the Journal of Law and Economics. Analyzing data from across the country, she detected no tangible gains from this approach. “Rates of sex offense do not decline after the introduction of a registry or public access to a registry via the Internet, nor do sex offenders appear to recidivate less when released into states with registries,” she writes. Evidence from Washington, D.C., shows no connection between the number of sex offenders on a block and the rate of sex crimes.
That doesn’t mean you and I are crazy to prefer knowing about the pedophile next door. But it suggests that the information offers no actual benefit. After all, most convicted sex offenders do not go on to be arrested for new sex offenses, and more than 90 percent of child victims are assaulted not by strangers but by relatives or other people they know. Sex offender registries may cause parents to focus on the remote peril while ignoring the more pertinent one. And, as in the examples cited earlier, they can inflict harsh punishment that departs from common sense and does nothing for public safety. Shielding citizens from vicious predators is unquestionably one of the central functions of any sound government. Megan’s Laws were enacted in the sensible pursuit of that goal. What they offer in practice, though, is counterfeit comfort.
Chapman’s a lot more conciliatory than I am, but then I never thought the registries sounded like an “urgent necessity” and in fact I argued against them from the time they started popping up like mushrooms. Also, I think relying on government to protect oneself is both infantile and foolish, and though I didn’t realize (in those pre-internet days) that the rate of recidivism for sex crimes is actually lower than for other crimes, the fact that the registries don’t work is hardly a “surprising revelation” to me because I knew even then that the vast majority of sex offences were committed by acquaintances.
So, the registries make a mockery of justice, shred the constitution, create a permanent criminal underclass and don’t even accomplish what they were designed to accomplish, but that’s not all; as one of my favorite non-sex bloggers pointed out in a Forbes column last summer, they might actually make neighborhoods more dangerous:
…in five states, a man can end up on the registry for having sex with a prostitute. In 13 states, it is a registerable offense to urinate in public, and in 32 states, it’s just as bad to be caught streaking. Yes, streaking. That means that when we look at a little map of our neighborhood and it’s covered with red “Sex Offender” dots, there’s often no way of telling whether the guy down the block is a child rapist or a jerk wearing a headband (and nothing else), bent on re-living the Carter years. Seeing a bunch of dots is enough to make us lock our kids inside, where they get fat, bored and addicted to “Halo 3,” because we think it’s “Halo 3″ outside. Goodbye, any sense of community! Which is ironic because community–knowing and looking out for each other–is exactly what makes neighborhoods safer.
The author of that column, Lenore Skenazy, writes Free-Range Kids, a blog dedicated to the proposition that the modern bubble-wrap school of parenting is creating a generation of dependent, neurotic closet-cases. Skenazy advises parents to let their kids develop self-reliance by doing things for themselves and on their own without 24-hour parental surveillance. She’s written on the topic of sex-offender registries a number of times, most recently on July 21st in reference to this story (as featured on The Agitator). Take a close look at the first response to Skenazy’s column, then #42 and #55 on The Agitator; as long as there are people like that commenter (I’m reasonably certain it’s the same guy on both blogs), who actually equate teenage bullying with forcible rape and believe it’s perfectly reasonable to condemn people to a lifetime of punishment and stigma for acts committed at the age of 14, dismantling these registries is going to be an uphill battle no matter how ineffective (or even counterproductive) they are proven to be.
One Year Ago Today
“Just Plain Weird” describes several calls which simply defy categorization.