By Kathryn Wall
Several states seek changes to how sex offenders register.
First enacted in the 1980s, sex offender registration laws have changed over the years to address community concerns.
Now, officials across the country are struggling to ensure the laws apply to homeless sex offenders, while eyeing changes.
The nation's first registration laws began as public outcry to high-profile cases involving children.
Jacob Wetterling, 11, was kidnapped riding his bike with friends in 1989. The Wetterling Act was created soon afterward.
In 1996, Megan's Law was enacted, which modified the Wetterling Act. Megan Kanka was 7 years old when she was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a neighbor.
That neighbor was a convicted sex offender, but none of the neighbors knew.
Almost all state sex offender registries require a convicted offender to report his or her address to local authorities. Without an address to report or a permanent place for law enforcement to monitor, homeless offenders are raising new questions about the registries and public safety.
Lisa Simmons, the sex offender registrar in the Greene County Sheriff's Office, said the homeless individuals she monitors don't normally cause a stir.
"Usually, my homeless offenders, they just keep to themselves -- to my knowledge," she said.
But at least two incidents involving homeless sex offenders in the county surfaced in October; both men are now jailed.
"The logic is there -- you can't track them," said Craig Hemmens, head of Missouri State University's department of criminology and criminal justice.
Hemmens said the stories of people forced into homelessness because of sex offender requirements are prevalent, but research doesn't find the same correlation.
Also often mentioned is the idea that sex offenders are more likely to re-offend.
Hemmens said data on recidivism rates among sex offenders vary widely, in part because of the umbrella of crimes considered sex offenses.
"Lots of people are labeled as sex offenders," Hemmens said.
What has been shown in research is that pedophiles do have higher rates of recidivism than other crimes, he said.
But there are others who question whether registries protect the community as intended.
Opponents argue the registries might make offenders more dangerous --forcing some into isolation and to give up working toward acceptance by society.
Among those is Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting the human rights of people worldwide.
"If former offenders simply had to register their whereabouts with the police, the adverse consequences for them would be minimal," the group writes in a 2007 report titled "No Easy Answers Sex Offender Laws in the US."
"But online sex offender registries brand everyone listed on them with a very public 'scarlet letter' that signifies not just that they committed a sex offense in the past, but that by virtue of that fact they remain dangerous."
Still, the group recognizes the emotionally charged issue. The report instead advocates for a new approach.
"Broad-based community notification and residency restriction laws are not the panacea to stopping sexual violence. Those who care about ending sex crimes must demand that policymakers reject one-size-fits-all laws to address sex abuse and begin to invest the political and financial resources in policies that actually work."