The Sex Offender Registry: It’s Not What You Think
by Sandy Rozek
“Texas sex offender added to 10 most wanted sex offenders list.” “Virginia man arrested for sex crimes after third victim comes forward.” “Arizona sex offender sentenced to 100 years for child porn.”
These are the sorts of headlines that inundate the news and media outlets regarding those in the criminal justice system because of sex crime charges. The cumulative result is to leave the public with the impression that everyone who is labeled a sex offender has done some horrible things and deserves not only lengthy sentencing and harsh punishment but also inclusion on a public sex offender registry for as long as possible.
However, the headlines that would show how untrue this is are seldom if ever seen.
On March 12, the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned a sex offender parole violation for a man who has been imprisoned for more than three years. Forbidden any internet usage by terms of his parole, Bobby Ross was revoked and imprisoned when the parole board learned that his girlfriend with whom he lived owned a computer with internet access. In spite of the fact that he did not know the password for the protected device and that no evidence existed that he had ever accessed it, he was sent back to prison.
Where is the headline saying “Sex offender imprisoned again because his girlfriend owns a computer that he never used”?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 23 percent of contact sexual offenders were younger than 18 at the time of their offense, with 16 percent under the age of 12. The statistics further show that in more than a third of sexual-abuse cases against minors, the perpetrators also were juveniles; with victims younger than 6, 40 percent of the offenders were juveniles.
These situations, which are often consensual for teenagers and part of age-appropriate play and curiosity for younger children, seldom make the headlines. The cases of “40-year-old man charged with sexual assault of 6-year-old child,” however, blare from every media source for days on end, and in as sensationalized terms as possible, whenever they occur.
“Michael” is a former police officer in Colorado. In telling about the “sex offense” cases he remembers the most vividly, he related these, cases he was required to visit as an officer in order to verify their registration compliance.
“A 10-year-old male (yes, I said 10) was at a sleepover at a 9-year-old male friend’s house. The mother of the younger boy walked into the bathroom, and both boys were naked, laughing, and poking at each other’s privates. Instead of being a parent and telling them to knock it off, she called the police. The older child was charged and forced to register on the sex offender registry.
“After a homecoming game that her school won, an 18-year-old female cheerleader boarded the bus with the rest of the students to return to their school. She saw the opposing side’s cheerleaders outside the bus, lowered the window, pulled down her underwear, and “mooned” them. She was subsequently charged and registered as a sex offender.
“A 23-year-old male at a college party, intoxicated, as a joke ‘shorts-dropped’ a male friend of his, exposing his buttocks. He was charged and registered as a sex offender.”
These types of cases seldom make the news, and if they do, it is highly unlikely to be beyond the local level. When they do, the public outrage at their triviality and the waste of resources generally causes a reversal or at least a reduction of the charges. The Zach Anderson case is a prominent example of that. The revision of many state laws in regard to teen sexting is another.
But these are seen as the exceptions rather than the majority. In actuality, a report issued by the Justice Department verifies that only a small fraction of those on registries are truly high-risk.
A few states, evaluating and examining the empirical data in order to implement more accurate assessment systems, are finding interesting things. Oregon, with 30,000 registrants, feels roughly 70 percent will be Level 1, the lowest assigned level of risk, 20 percent Level 2, and 10 percent Level 3.
Minnesota, which has maintained a reasonably accurate evaluation system for years, classifies only a fraction of its more than 17,000 convicted sex offenders into levels and publicly registers even fewer. Levels 1, at roughly 3,000, and 2, about a 1,000, are on a nonpublic registry. Other than a few others who are required to register publicly, those classified as level 3 are the only public registrants, and there are about 400.
And, contrary to public wisdom, Minnesota’s re-offense rate is minimal. Actual sexual re-offense rates are low throughout the country, but a 2007 report that follows all 2003 Minnesota sexual offense releasees shows an extremely low 2.5 percent re-offense rate for a sexual crime.
The heavily skewed reporting and dissemination of information related to sexual offending is damaging in several ways. It clearly causes public perceptions about those on sex-offender registries to be in error, which leads to, at best, behaviors that cause re-entry difficulties for law-abiding, returning citizens. At worst, it leads to hate-mongering, banishment, homelessness, hopelessness, ruined families, destroyed lives, and vigilantism that has resulted in death on a significant number of occasions. It also negatively influences the willingness of legislators and local and state governments to look at actual data in the writing of laws and the creation of ordinances, which exacerbate all of the above.
Balanced, truthful reporting and portrayal of those whom our nation has decided to label as sex offenders would go a long way toward dispelling the myths that most on the registry are dangerous and that the sex offender registry is of value in creating a safer society.
Sandy Rozek is a board member and communications director for the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws – NARSOL --, an organization that advocates for laws based on facts and evidence and for policies that support the successful rehabilitation, restoration, and reintegration of law abiding, former sex offenders into society as the path to a safer society.