The Façade of Safety at a Price: America’s Sex Offender Registration Laws

In 2014, 19-year-old Zach Anderson went on the dating app “Hot or Not” to look for a date. He met a girl who claimed to be 17, and he went to visit her in her town of Niles, Michigan. Zach and his date had sex at a playground that night. However, this one night of his life would cost him much of his next 25 years, as his 17-year-old date had lied; she was only 14. The girl’s mother thought she was missing, and several weeks later Zach was arrested. After serving two-and-a-half months in jail, Zach had to register as a sex offender. He will be registered for 25 years and will be on probation for 5. He cannot use the internet or have a smart phone. He also cannot go anywhere that serves alcohol. He must be home by 8 p.m. every night, and cannot talk to anyone under the age of 17 who is not a family member. He cannot live at his parent’s home because it is too close to a public boat ramp. Zach insists that if he would have known she was lying about her age, he wouldn’t have gone on that one date with her.[1] He will be registered as a sex offender until he is 44. Many would agree that this punishment is harsh, and that it might not fit the crime. Even the then-14-year-old and her mother testified in court on the behalf of Zach. However, some might claim that cases like that of Zach are simply collateral damage in the fight against more serious sex offenders like pedophiles and rapists. However, the question remains: are sex offender registries worth the harm they cause?

It is important to identify who sex offenders actually are, as they do not all match the stereotypical image of disgust and danger. Some of those who have been forced to register as sex offenders are young people in the same position as Zach, where they had sex with someone slightly under the age of consent, even though they do not have a large age difference. There are other seemingly low-level sex offences that can result in someone having to register as a sex offender. Sexting, public urination, having sex in a car, mooning, filming or taking pictures of one’s child in the bathtub, providing contraceptives to one’s child, and streaking, are all examples of sex offences in various states.[2] Anyone who commits these crimes, just like a pedophile or rapist, must register as a sex offender after being released from prison. This means that the sex offender living in a neighborhood could be a dangerous criminal, or someone who peed in public when they were in high school. However, there are other misconceptions about sex offenders, one of which is the kinds of people who actually pose the most threat to a child.

In reality, it is family members and family acquaintances, not strangers, that pose the greatest threat to a child in terms of them potentially falling victim to a sex crime. Studies show that only 10% of the children that are sexually abused are the victims of complete strangers. Furthermore, around 50% off all molestations are done by a family member or an acquaintance of the child. What this means is that it is more likely that a family member or acquaintance is doing the abuse than a stranger.[3] This creates a problem. If many of those on the sex offender registry are on it for what would generally be considered minor crimes, and the strangers on the registry are not even the ones most likely to abuse a child, it might cause complacency in parents. They will be so focused on protecting their child from what they assume is the main threat, strangers who might be sexual predators, that they will become less vigilant in looking out for other sources of danger to their child.

Even though many of the people who suffer the consequences of sex offender registries are not the dangerous or evil criminals people would think they are, and parents might become complacent due to over reliance on the list, there is still the important issue of whether or not sex offender registries actually reduce sex crimes. Experts disagree on this issue. Some scholars, like Amanda Agan, find the registries ineffective. She says: “I find little evidence to support the effectiveness of sex offender registries, either in practice or in potential. 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.”[4] Other scholars, like J.J Prescott, say that while the registries may reduce sex criminal’s recidivism, they might also increase their likelihood for crime due to the consequences of being labeled a sex offender. [5] The fact that there is such debate amongst experts as to whether or not these registries work is very concerning. This legislation has a very heavy impact on those who are forced to register as sex offenders, and they frequently are simply people convicted of minor crimes like urinating in public. Furthermore, parents might become complacent due to focusing too much on the strangers on the registry and not enough on those closest to their child. These negatives combined with the lack of a scholarly consensus surrounding the effectiveness of sex offender registries creates doubts surrounding the existence of such registries. Until the effectiveness of sex crime legislation can be confirmed by experts, then the existence of registries is not justifiable in their current form.

1: Juju Chang, Chris James, and Lauren Effron “This 19-year-old Will Spend the Next 25 Years as a Registered Sex Offender” abc News, July 30, 2015. http://abcnews.go.com/US/19-year-spend-25-years-registered-sex-offender/story?id=32783206

2: Ryanne Colbert. “Discrimination Needed: The Over-Inclusive Definition of Who is a Sex Offender.” Journal of Criminal Psychology 1, no. 1 (2011): 43–50. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1108/20093829201100005.

3: Steven R. Morrison, “Creating Sex Offender Registries: The Religious Right and the Failure to Protect Society’s Vulnerable.” American Journal of Criminal Law 35 (2007): (1): 23–89. http://search.proquest.com/docview/206274069?accountid=13314

4: Amanda Y. Agan, “Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?” The Journal of Law & Economics 54, no. 1 (2011): 207–39. doi:10.1086/658483. 209.

5: J. J. Prescott, “Do Sex Offender Registries make Us Less Safe?” Regulation 35, no. 2 (2012): 48–55. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1030090057?pq-origsite=summon