The Mom Behind National Sex Offender Registries Wants To Scale Them Back

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Slate is running a series of articles this week on why and how U.S. sex offender registries have become the beast that they have. Writers Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi, and Jane Shim – all students at Yale Law School – kicked things off Monday by talking to Patty Wetterling, the woman largely responsible for the sex-offender registry’s national creep.

In 1989, Wetterling’s 11-year-old son Jacob was kidnapped on his way home from a convenience store with his brother and friend; he was never found, and his abductor’s identity remains unknown. At the time his kidnapping, only a few states had sex-offender registries, and Wetterling came to see this as a big problem. She pushed for her home state of Minnesota and all states to adopt them. And voila: the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994.

“But the world has changed since then,” Wetterling told Slate:

What’s changed, Wetterling says, is what science can tell us about the nature of sex offenders.

The logic behind the past push for registries rested on what seem like common sense assumptions. Among the most prominent were, first, sex offenders were believed to be at a high risk for reoffending—once a sex offender, always a sex offender. Second, it was thought that sex offenses against children were commonly committed by strangers. Taken together, the point was that if the police had a list, and the public could access it, children would be safer.

The problem, however, is that a mass of empirical research conducted since the passage of Jacob’s Law has cast increasing doubt on all of those premises.

Sex offense recidivism rates have actually been shown to be lower than for most other crimes. And in 93 percent of cases with child victims, the offender was not some untraceable stranger but someone known to the victim.

Some states are starting to come around. In California, one of the first states to enact a sex offender registry (in 1947!), the board that manages it is calling for reforms. In a 2014 report, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CSOMB) argues that not only does it unduly burden registrants in its current, expansive state, it is also less effective than a much less robust registry would be:

California’s system of lifetime registration for all convicted sex offenders has created a registry that is very large and that includes many individuals who do not necessarily pose a risk to the community. The consequences of these realities are that the registry has, in some ways, become counterproductive to improving public safety. When everyone is viewed as posing a significant risk, the ability for law enforcement and the community to differentiate between who is truly high risk and more likely to reoffend becomes impossible.

The board also notes the extraordinary cost of running the current registry. Far from taking money away from fighting sex crimes, reigning in the registry a bit would allow more resources for tracking high-risk offenders and developing other ways of protecting communities, it says. CSOMB concludes with advice that would be wise to heed way beyond California:

If the current registration system was effective in the ways intended, these might be considered part of the price to pay for the greater good. But, since the current registry does not attain its intended purposes, many of these unintended consequences are without justification.

Today at Slate, Sethi maps out which states force people to register as sex offenders for things like public urination, consensual teen sex, and prostitution. Free Range Kids blogger Lenore Skenazy recently highlighted how “any registering snafu” once you’re on the list – including notifying the state of an address change a week after the move instead of the week before – can result in an extended registry period or renewed time in jail. In Texas, the administrative error comes with a mandatory minimum of two to five years.