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Human Rights Watch Report: Most Sex Offender Laws Misguided and Ineffective

by Matt Clarke

In September 2007, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US. The report concluded that most sex offender laws are ineffective and misguided in that they do not reduce the probability of future sex offenses or make the perpetrators of sex offenses easier to identify and apprehend. This is largely because the laws are based upon several widely-held, but erroneous beliefs which are reinforced by the mass media and which the public and lawmakers vehemently believe to be true. Thus, the report concludes, “sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good.”

If asked in a random survey, most members of the public and lawmakers would tell you that sex offenders continually repeat their offenses, that they have no control over their criminal sexual impulses, that there is no cure for this condition, that children and teens who commit sex offenses will commit adult sex offenses and that sex offenders’ victims are usually strangers. The problem with these perceptions is that they are all untrue. The 143-page HRW report not only makes this clear, but backs it up with statistics and scientific reports.

The biggest myth is that sex offenders continue committing sex offenses. Without reference to any source, lawmakers debating the passage of federal sex offender laws claim recidivism rates of more than 40% (Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX)), 74% (Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN)) or even 90% (former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL)--who later resigned from Congress following allegations of improper relationships with underaged congressional pages). The problem with these statistics is that they appear to be made up from whole cloth. The U.S. Department of Justice tracked 9,691 male sex offenders. After 3 years, only 5.3% had been arrested for, and of them only 3.2% convicted of, a new sex offense. Three years is the national standard for recidivism studies. Longer term studies seem to indicate that less than one-quarter of all sex offenders will ever commit another sex crime.

87% of people arrested for sex offenses were not previously convicted of a sex offense. This brings into question the concept of sex offender registration since it can have no effect on the vast majority of new cases.

Only 14% of sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement involved strangers. Over 90% of sex crimes against children are committed by people they know and trust. This brings into question the concept of community notification--which makes people focus on strangers in the neighborhood rather than the friends, acquaintances and family members who are most likely to commit a sex offense against them or their children.

Since the current sex offender laws are based upon the aforementioned misconceptions, is it any wonder that they don’t actually prevent sex offenses? This is not the only problem with sex offender laws. The report refers to the laws as “overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk.” The report notes that such non-violent offenses as urinating in public, possession of child pornography or being a 17-year-old with a 15-year-old girlfriend or boyfriend can require registration as a sex offender. It also criticizes the availability of sex offenders’ personal information to anyone, anywhere online, even when it cannot have a public safety purpose. In this vein, it notes that many registrants have been harassed and assaulted. Some were even murdered.

Sex offender laws break down into four categories: registration, community notification, tracking and residency restrictions. The report views registration as generally harmless, although some jurisdictions have made it unnecessarily onerous by requiring monthly re-registration in person involving an hours-long process. Notification of law enforcement personnel also makes sense and a case can be made for notification of a sex offender’s immediate neighbors. Less logical is notification of everyone in the world. Tracking using GPS devices introduces a host of problems based upon the unreliability of the technology.
Residency restrictions can effectively bar sex offenders from entire cities, or even States in the case of Georgia, without any evidence that it helps prevent future offenses. The combination of sex offender laws can prevent a sex offender from re-integrating into the community, getting a job or even finding living accommodations--fundamental requirements for ex-prisoners to succeed. Thus, they may work against the very goal of crime prevention they allegedly seek to forward.

“The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them. Even assuming some public safety benefit, however, the laws can be reformed to reduce their adverse effects without compromising that benefit.”

The report noted that no other country in the world had such onerous sex offender laws. Six other countries--the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and Ireland have sex offender registration laws, but the period required for registration is short and the information remains with the police. South Korea is the only country other than the U.S. with community notification laws. No other country has residency restriction laws. Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland considered and rejected universal community notification laws (although limited notification by police may be allowed in special cases).

Recent federal legislation has forced States to pass onerous sex offender laws or face a loss of federal revenue. The report found many of the federal laws to be ill conceived and based upon the misconceptions previously mentioned in this article. The report found that “all provisions of the Adam Walsh Act that deal with state registration and community notification requirements should be repealed.” These include a mandate for lifelong registration and worldwide notification via the internet. The report also found no basis for blanket residency restrictions.

The study found that the fear of sex offenders exceeds the fear of terrorists. This is despite the fact that adult sex offenses in the U.S. declined 69 percent between 1993 and 2005. Similarly, sex offenses against children fell 40% between 1992 and 2000. Furthermore, “numerous, rigorous studies analyzing objectively verifiable data--primarily arrest and conviction records--indicate sex offender recidivism rates are far below what the legislators cite and what the public believes.” So why are onerous sex offender laws on the books of almost every State in the Union? “People want a silver bullet that will protect their children. There is no silver bullet. There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence.”

What is certainly not a silver bullet is onerous residency restrictions. In the words of one Iowa law enforcement official, “We’ve taken stable people who have committed a sex crime and cast them out of their homes, away from their jobs, away from treatment, and away from public transportation. It’s just absolutely absurd what these laws have done, and the communities are at greater risk because of it.” Source: No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US, Human Rights Watch, Sept. 2007 (available online at or on the PLN Web Site:

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