Sex Offender Registries: Good Idea Gone Bad?

PA's sex offender registry lists 100 names within a one-mile radius of my house. Should I be worried?

The ongoing plight of a Florida teen underscores the dysfunction of state laws that require sex offenders to register in a national database, even when they are teenagers and their “crime” consisted of nothing more than having a consensual relationship with someone a few years younger than them.

If you aren’t already familiar with the story, here are the details, courtesy of the Huffington Post:

“A Florida teenager faces criminal charges stemming from her relationship with another young female student. Kaitlyn Hunt, 18, faces two felony counts of ‘lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16’ after the parents of her 15-year-old girlfriend pressed charges earlier this year.”

According to media reports, the two teens—who were basketball teammates—met when Hunt was 17 and the “victim” was 14 and had been dating openly for several months. The younger girl’s parents, who opposed the relationship, filed a criminal complaint when Hunt became a legal adult. If convicted of the charges, Hunt faces more than a decade in jail and would be required to register as a sex offender. Last week she rejected a plea deal that carried a lesser penalty of two years of house arrest but still would have required her to register.

Many commentators have been focusing on the gay angle, claiming—at least semi-plausibly—that the youths were targeted because of their sexual orientation. Hundreds of thousands of supporters have signed a petition calling on prosecutors to drop the charges; and the case has drawn the attention of the hacktivist collective Anonymous, which is putting its own unique brand of pressure on officials in Indian River County, where the charges were filed.

But while the fact that the case involves two girls has certainly imbued it with an element of political dynamism,  as many as 30 other cases just like it—almost all involving heterosexuals—fly under the radar each year in Florida. The real story is not so much that Hunt and her young lover were targeted, but that draconian sex laws have created a regime in which a high-schooler’s life can be ruined for engaging in a monogamous love affair with a classmate.

In 2013, there are nearly 750,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S., including individuals convicted of non-violent crimes such as consensual sex between teenagers, prostitution and public nudity, as well as those who committed their only offenses decades ago. While national statistics generally do not separate youth sex offenders from others, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, it’s not uncommon for children as young as 15—and in some cases 13—to end up on the registry.

Sex registries in the U.S. began in 1994 with passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act—which required states to form a database of offenders convicted of sexually violent offenses or offenses against children. Two years later, the abduction and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey led to the law’s amendment to require law enforcement to make registration data public. While the laws were passed with the best of intentions, their implementation has created a number of problems for municipal governments and police and raised serious questions about the nature of criminal justice in America and the rights of offenders to reclaim their lives after serving their sentences.

Though they were originally designed to house the worst of the worst,  sex offender registries have become so broad in their application that they’re practically useless. A search of Pennsylvania’s sex offender registry turns up 100 registered offenders within a one-mile radius of my house (one lives two block away). Should I be worried? It’s hard to say. Listed offenses include “aggravated indecent assault,” “unlawful contact or communication with a minor” and “sexual assault.” These sound pretty bad, but thanks to broad definitions and a lack of any specific information , it’s impossible to know whether I’m living near a child predator, a girl who made the mistake of sleeping with her 16-year-old boyfriend after she turned 18, or a homeless guy caught masturbating in a public park. The Keystone State is actually fairly conservative in its use of the registry; in New York, patronizing a prostitute is enough to land you on the sex offender list, and under old state sodomy laws—some of which were struck down as recently as 2003—oral sex between consenting participants technically qualified as a sex crime in places like Georgia and Texas.

And therein lies one of the problems. If the public is unable to discern genuine risk from a public sex offender database, the system is no longer working. Instead, registration has become its own form of punishment, which is contrary to how it was intended.  Indeed, as they are currently applied, laws governing the movement of registered sex offenders seem carefully crafted to prevent rehabilitation. Youth offenders are barred from attending school, while adults struggle to find work or even a place to live. It begs the question: Are we setting these people up for failure?

The restrictions have led to a range of unintended consequences. In 2009, Florida’s severe residency restrictions led to the creation of a sex-offender “shantytown” under a causeway in Miami. And in Suffolk County, New York, the law is so ridiculously stringent that the county was forced to erect two communal trailers to house their registered offenders. Last weekend, embarrassed officials began moving more than two dozen men to shelters. Given what we know about who winds up on sex offender registries, it’s likely only a few of these men are actually a risk to the community.

If sex offenders registries have legitimate purposes—and I would say they do, when they are limited to repeat sexual predators—protecting the community from someone like Kaitlyn Hunt is definitely not one of them.