The reality is that sex offenders are a great political target, but that doesn’t mean any law under the sun is appropriate.
—Illinois State Representative John Fritchey1
People want a silver bullet that will protect their children, [but] there is no silver bullet. There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence.
—Patty Wetterling, child safety advocate whose son was abducted in 1989 and remains missing2
What happened to nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford is every parent’s worst nightmare. In February 2005 she was abducted from her home in Florida, raped, and buried alive by a stranger, a next-door neighbor who had been twice convicted of molesting children. Over the past decade, several horrific crimes like Jessica’s murder have captured massive media attention and fueled widespread fears that children are at high risk of assault by repeat sex offenders. Politicians have responded with a series of laws, including the sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws that are the subject of this report.
Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of specified crimes that involve sexual conduct to register with law enforcement—regardless of whether the crimes involved children. So-called “Megan’s Laws” establish public access to registry information, primarily by mandating the creation of online registries that provide a former offender’s criminal history, current photograph, current address, and other information such as place of employment. In many states everyone who is required to register is included on the online registry. A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance (typically 500 to 2,500 feet) of places where children gather—for example, schools, playgrounds, and daycare centers.
Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws. They reflect a deep public yearning for safety in a world that seems increasingly threatening. Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime prevention measures is a core governmental obligation.
Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good:
- The registration laws are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk;
- Under community notification laws, anyone anywhere can access online sex offender registries for purposes that may have nothing to do with public safety. Harassment of and violence against registrants have been the predictable result;
- In many cases, residency restrictions have the effect of banishing registrants from entire urban areas and forcing them to live far from their homes and families.
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. Registration laws should be narrowed in scope and duration. Publicly accessible online registries should be eliminated, and community notification should be accomplished solely by law enforcement officials. Blanket residency restrictions should be abolished.[NOTE: The Human Rights Watch report is well documented and cited, often with linking footnotes to confirm the documentation.]