US sex-offender laws, registries not conducive to child safety

The US’s burgeoning sex-offender registries are becoming more of a problem than a solution. “Because so many offences require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded,” The Economist reports in a thorough look at the subject. “As of December last year, there were 674,000 of them, according to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. If they were all crammed into a single state, it would be more populous than Wyoming, Vermont or North Dakota. As a share of its population, America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders.”

The problem is when people “assume that anyone listed on a sex-offender registry must be a rapist or a child molester. But most states spread the net much more widely. A report by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch found that at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes…. No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers.” Only a small minority of registered offenders are the “predators” so widely referred to in the news media. Take Georgia, for example. That state “has more than 17,000 registered sex offenders,” according to The Economist. “Some are highly dangerous. But many are not. And it is fiendishly hard for anyone browsing the registry to tell the one from the other.” The state’s Sex Offender Registration Review Board found that “just over 100” of the 17,000 could be classified as “predators,” “which means they have a compulsion to commit sex offences.”

Disinformation and fear are not conducive to calm, constructive discussion about young people’s online activities – in families or in policymaking circles. Overreaction by parents causes kids to go into online stealth mode (which gets easier and easier with proliferating access points and connected devices) at a time when child-parent communication is very much needed. Focusing too much on registered sex offenders causes people to forget that most child sexual exploitation is perpetrated by people the victims are related to or know in their everyday lives, most likely people who haven’t been arrested, much less convicted, and therefore not people in sex-offender registries (see “Why technopanics are bad”).

But the trend is bigger and bigger registries. “Sex-offender registries are popular,” the Economist reports. “Rape and child molestation are terrible crimes that can traumatise their victims for life. All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders.”

Writes parent and public-policy analyst Adam Thierer, “If you want to keep your kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to scrap our current sex-offender registries and completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country.” For example, a case I mentioned last April: 18-year-old Phillip Alpert will be in his state’s sex-offender registry until he’s 43, CNN reported. He is no predator, the way CNN tells the story. He had just turned 18 when he made what turned out to be probably the biggest mistake of his life. He and his 16-year-old girlfriend of two and a half years had had an argument. He told CNN he was tired, and it was the middle of the night when he sent a nude photo of her (a photo she had taken of herself and sent to him) to “dozens of her friends and family.” Under current child-pornography and sex-offender laws, this scenario could be repeated in many other states. “Thirty-eight states include juvenile sex offenders in their sex-offender registries,” according to CNN. “Alaska, Florida and Maine will register juveniles only if they are tried as adults. Indiana registers juveniles age 14 and older. South Dakota registers juveniles age 15 and older.”

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