Shana Rowan is a New York-based advocate for effective laws and voice for families of sex offenders nationwide. She maintains a blog at iloveasexoffender.blogspot.com.
As a registry reform advocate and fiancée to a registered sex offender whose crime was committed as a minor, the editorial “Sex offender registry protects community” (Sept. 27) was a frustrating read.
For nearly two decades, sex offender laws have been based on emotion and anecdote rather than facts. Also absent have been considerations for the often-forgotten victims: the children and family members of registrants. The most disturbing results? Sexual crime rates that remain unchanged.
The ineffectiveness of the registry probably comes as a surprise to most. It is the goal of advocates like myself to raise awareness and remind society that while revenge-based laws may feel good, they aren’t making us or our families any safer.
Several pervasive myths have formed the political and social climate responsible for today’s sex offender laws. One is the belief that registrants have high sexual recidivism rates, which has been proven incorrect by dozens of academic, federal and state studies. (They actually have the lowest re-offense rates of all criminals except murderers.) Another is the fallacy of “stranger danger,” when in reality 90-97 percent of children are sexually abused by a family member or trusted acquaintance, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Short of a few tragic, high-profile cases, instances of children being abducted and/or abused by convicted sex offenders are actually very rare.
In their 2008 study, “Does a Watched Pot Boil?”, researchers found recidivism rates of convicted sex offenders to be indistinguishable from what they were 10 years before the registry became public. They also found that 96 percent of sex crimes were committed by those not on the registry — which means that at best, our laws target a very small number of would-be predators. While we can all agree that any re-offense is too many, it’s equally true that no law will deter someone intent on committing a crime. Instead, they negatively impact the majority of law-abiding registrants, and prevent them from becoming productive members of society.
There are over 200 crimes that can land someone on the registry, many having nothing to do with children, violence or even an actual victim. Hundreds of thousands of sex offenders are children, or were at the time of their offense. The U.S. Department of Justice found that over a third of all sex crimes committed against minors were committed by minors themselves. The laws we think are only impacting sex offenders are equally damaging and restrictive to their children and families.
Sex crime is a serious issue that cannot and should not be ignored, and effective punishment of perpetrators is necessary. Also necessary is a system that allows law-abiding former offenders to re-integrate healthily back into society, minimizes damage to their families and adequately protects the public. By allowing the majority to move on with their lives, everyone is better able to identify, track and monitor those who truly need it, and focus more on healing the survivors and preventing these crimes from happening in the first place.