Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How useful are sex offender registries?

The California case of Philip Garrido has once again aroused great anxiety about child sexual abuse. He is accused of having kidnapped an 11 year old girl 18 years ago, keeping her a virtual prisoner and fathering two children with her. How can we protect our children against such outrages?

The most common answer to this question consists of a complex system of mandatory registration of convicted sex offenders. The requirements differ from state to state of who must register and how the obligation to register is determined in each case. In 19 states the legislature determines classifications. In other jurisdictions, courts, or special boards make determination. In some states, professionals trained in assessment of sex offenders are asked to make a determination for each individual case. In some, the offender is given an opportunity to appeal the decision by presenting expert witnesses and other evidence; in others that right does not exist or is, in practice, not respected.

In some states, some sex offenders must register as long as they live, in others the obligation to register ends after ten years. Each state has a web page listing names, faces, address and offense of registered sex offenders. In many localities, laws limit where sex offenders may live.
In many localities the local police will notify neighbors within a thousand feet of where a sex offender lives.

Sex offender registries have widespread public support.

But there are clearly problems: Professionals well acquainted with the problems of sexual offense fear that the registration requirement forces sexual offenders underground. As a consequence they may well find themselves more isolated, less likely to get support from family members, friends or acquaintances. They will also face serious economic problems because they cannot hold a regular job. The registration requirement may well put them in economic and social jeopardy--all pressures that may encourage re-offense. In this perspective, the sex offender registrations laws may well serve to increase the threat from sexual offenders instead of making us, and especially our children, more secure.

A second set of doubts points out that the number of registered sex offenders is only a small percentage of the the perpetrators of sexual offenses. According to students of the topic “Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as friends of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases. “ (Wikipedia) Perpetrators are often family members, or trusted persons like family priests, sports coaches, troop leaders in the Scouts, baby sitters. Families are often unwilling to believe their children's complaints about sexual abuse from adults in the family. Even if the children's stories are taken seriously, adults will not call the police to arrest a family member. The grandfather of a friend of mine molested all grandchildren--boys and girls. The children's mother refused to believe their complaints because she could not believe that her father would molest her children. Sex offender registries of convicted sex offenders do not protect children in that situation because only one out of three sexual offenses is reported to the authorities.

Families must try to protect their children against sexual abuse by alerting them early to the dangers. That requires that parents talk about sex to their children when they are still quite young but parents are often reluctant to do that. ( Since our culture exposes children very early to references to sexuality on TV or in the movies this should be easier than it once was.) It requires that sex and sexual abuse be a legitimate topic in school class rooms. It requires that families be alert to possible problems within the immediate family and in churches, sports teams, scouts and other places.

The legal mechanisms produce a false sense of security. They conceal the responsibility of family and neighbors. For many years children were subject to abuse from members of the clergy. It is difficult to believe that parents or other adults in the different parishes had no inkling of that. While the Church hierarchy was seriously remiss in dealing with this problem so were parents and other members of the local communities. The exclusive reliance on sex offender registration and notification mechanisms tends to obscure that everyone is responsible for the safety of children.

Americans take pride in their freedoms and institutions that respect and protect individual rights. But these individual rights often come into conflicts with our security and many Americans are willing to sacrifice individual rights (of others) in order to enhance their own security. Many Americans support the death penalty even though there are significant number of cases of innocent persons being put to death. Many Americans support torture of terror suspects even though many of them will prove to be innocent. Many Americans support the registration of sex offenders, and public notification of their address even though a significant number of them will not re-offend. In many states offenders are not given a chance to challenge their classification. In many states the requirement for registration will not be re-examined after an ex-offender has been trouble free for a significant number of years. Various courts have acknowledged that being mistakenly classified as a dangerous sex-offender will seriously affect a person's life, their possibility for work or a normal social life. We should not jeopardize the rights of our fellow citizens for the sake of measures that do not actually assure greater safety for most of our children. The individual rights of sex offenders must be taken as seriously as those of any other group.

In this connection one must consider the unfairness of sex-offender registries. We do not have similar registration and notification requirements for murderers, for drunk drivers, for arsonists. Drug dealers or con artists who cheat old people out of their hard earned life savings do not have to register. Neither do men who father children they do not take responsibility for. There are many ways in which some people damage the lives of others but only sex-offenders must register.

Sexual abuse, especially of children is a very scary subject. But that is all the more reason for thinking very hard about what are the best ways of protecting our children. It is not clear that sex offender registries will contribute to their safety.