By Paul Hammel
LINCOLN - A newly released study (PDF) questions whether public safety has improved because of a four-year-old state law that requires all sex offenders to be listed on a public website.
The law, known as the Adam Walsh Act, has been criticized as being too harsh on those who commit minor offenses, by tacking a public scarlet letter on them, even though they are a low-risk to reoffend and have served their prison sentences and become productive, law-abiding citizens.
“It appears that the Adam Walsh Act was founded more on public emotion than good science,” concluded a report released Monday. It was done by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Consortium for Crime and Justice Research.
The report stated that Nebraska's old system of sex-offender registration “did not seem to be broken.” The report though, could not say if the old, or new, registration system was superior in deterring repeat sex offenses.
The adoption of the Adam Walsh Act in Nebraska was controversial and spawned a lawsuit by a group of convicted sex offenders who claimed it violated their constitutional rights. It was also praised for removing the subjective decision of whether an offender was at low or high risk to reoffend.
In 2008, a convicted sex offender was found guilty of raping two teenage girls in Blair. The man, who had been convicted previously in the rape of a 5-year-old girl, had been deemed by the Nebraska State Patrol as at the lowest risk of reoffending, Level 1.
Prior to 2009, only the names and photographs of sex offenders who had committed the most serious offenses and were deemed by the patrol as most likely to reoffend were publicized on the patrol's website.
Under the old system, those who committed minor offenses and were considered a low risk to reoffend were required to register with law enforcement agencies, but their information wasn't made public.
Nebraska's Adam Walsh Act, Legislative Bill 285, required that all sex offenders — low-risk and high-risk — have their photos and addresses posted on the state website, and to report to local law enforcement officials. The photos are to stay for as long as 25 years, and in some cases, for life.
Past offenders have said that the public listing has made it harder for them to hold jobs, prompted harassment of them and their children, and has wasted government resources by focusing monitoring efforts on them instead of those most likely to reoffend.
The Legislature two years ago discussed whether to exclude low-risk offenders from the public website, but instead opted to seek more information, via the UNO study, which cost $60,000.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said the study provides better data for lawmakers to judge the effectiveness of sex offender registries.
He said that his committee may look at revamping the registration requirements of lower-risk offenders, but that overall, the report showed him that it was unnecessary to repeal the Adam Walsh Act.
“I don't see that changing registration laws and going back to tiering them is the answer,” Ashford said.
The senator has launched an effort to reform state criminal sentences to ease the state's chronic prison overcrowding by punishing nonviolent offenders without putting them behind bars. Ashford said the information in the sex offender report will aid that effort, since sex offenders make up the largest percentage of state prison inmates, 18.3 percent.
The Adam Walsh Act was named for a boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981. His father is John Walsh, host of the television series “America's Most Wanted.”
- And it was never proven that his son was even sexually abused, yet he continues to push laws to punish sex offenders instead of sick murderers.
Among the study's other findings:
- Recidivism rates for sex offenders were low, but were lower following the passage of the Adam Walsh Act. For instance, the recidivism rate for Level 2 (medium-risk) offenders was 0.5 percent after passage of the act, and 2.5 percent before.
- From what we've been told, if you read the actual study, the above is wrong. The study found the exact opposite.
Page 2 of the study - Click to enlarge
- Public registries are limited in value because they list only known offenders, when most sex offenses are unreported. Thus, public registries could do a service by emphasizing that the greatest danger exists within a family or circle of acquaintances — about 90 percent of sex assaults are committed by nonstrangers.
- Registries that show the addresses of offenders could provide a false sense of security because most sex offenders do not commit crimes in their own neighborhood. Seven percent of such crimes were committed within a mile of an offender's residence.