By: Kyle Patterson and Michelle Azzizi
More so than most criminal offenses, sexual predators and sex crimes provoke large amounts of anxiety and insecurity within communities. As a result, the government and lawmakers have enacted multiple social policies designed to “protect” our communities from the dangers of sexual offenders. While sex offenders and their actions are incredibly disruptive to a community’s stability and an individual’s future; the reality of sex offenders and their actions do not match the public’s opinion or beliefs. Empirical evidence actually contradicts the public’s opinion that sex offenders have high recidivism rates and that they target strangers.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, initiatives were taken by the government to enact policies such as online offender registration, civil commitment, residential restriction, constant monitoring, and enhanced sentencing guidelines. The first major step taken to combat sex crimes and children safety was the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. This was enacted in 1994 after the investigation for the kidnapping of Jacob went cold. This kidnapping not only placed fear among our communities in the US but also mandated all registered sex offenders to disclose their whereabouts to local law enforcement agencies. In 1996, the Wetterling Act was amended in response to the murder of Megan Kanka, which required law enforcement to notify community members who live near sex offenders. As a response to the culmination of both these acts, all 50 states are now required to post their offender registries online.
While I am supportive of enforcing justice through prison sentences on sex offenders, I am skeptical of the effectiveness of such policies. Policies that inform the community only instill fear in the public and restrict the freedom of past offenders once they are released from custody. I believe registry information that includes offender addresses; offense information; and their picture, falsely reassure us that we are safe from such individuals. Further, I strongly believe that if a dangerous sex offender is determined to be at high risk of reoffending, then he or she will find a way to reoffend despite heavy monitoring. This false sense of security that is created by the sex offender registry is driven by emotional responses to offenders’ actions rather than by empirical data. Several studies conducted here in the US have found recidivism rates to be much lower than believed and have also debunked the myth of stranger danger. Sex offenses are much more likely to occur within the context of a familial relationship or between established acquaintances.
Lastly, without giving the impression that I have sympathy for sex offenders, we must understand that such policies have many unintended consequences. Most importantly, current policies do not allow for proper reintegration into society for released offenders. Policies must be re-formulated in such a way that more effectively protect our communities while not promoting fear and hindering the offender’s process of reintegration.
It is very common for our society to have zero tolerance for sex offenders. It seems as if no one cares to know the person’s background or history. Many people believe that when a sex offender commits an awful crime that every mother and father worry to death about, they deserve to just be locked up and put away in prison forever. I will be honest this was my outlook before I opened up my mind to see it is not that simple, it is much more complex. I don’t think anyone really knows or understands that there are different categories of sexual offenders. I don’t think one form of punishment for all categories is going to be effective in deterring and rehabilitating these individuals. Providing effective treatment and rehabilitation to individuals who truly cannot control their tendencies is crucial. However, like anything in life there is always going to be that small percentage of individuals that either will not or cannot change their ways. This is where we run into a big problem. We are basing our sex offender policies on that very small percentage of people.
Now this is only my opinion, but I find it so frustrating when we are witnessing that the policies we have are not working for the majority of cases. However, we are not coming to any cohesive agreement that things need to change. I know it is not that easy to bring about change especially in policies but, we should at least have these sorts of issues brought to everyone’s attention. We need to base our policies on research and evidence and not just on emotions and fear.