Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't be fooled by sex offender registries

Don't be fooled by sex offender registries.

We regularly hear stories of convicted sex offenders, who come out of prison after serving their sentence for molesting children, only to rape and murder another girl child. It is terribly frightening to think that this might happen to your child.

Sex offender registries have been instituted in order to protect our children against these sexual predators. But there is good reason to think that they do not protect anyone while imposing an enormous burden on people who do not deserve it.

Consider who today has to register as a sex offender: people who have sex with children, men who rape an adult woman, men who are arrested for urinating in public, 16-year-old boys who have sex with a 14-year-old girl, not to mention flashers and people like that.

The 16-year-old is now in his 30s. He married the girl he had sex with when she was 14. They have children and their children's father is on a website for sex offender. In many localities he may not live within 1000 feet of a school or other institutions where children congregate. In many cases the police is mandated to periodically warn his neighbors that he is a registered sex offender. He may not be a Boy Scout leader for his son's Boy Scout troop and, perhaps most seriously of all, he may have serious problems finding work because he is a registered sex offender. This man is made to suffer a lot. Does he deserve that? Sex-offender registries, as now applied, commit serious injustices.
This man is a man like you and me. Forcing him to submit to all these indignities and harms will not protect any girl child from rape or murder because he is no more likely to do that than you and I.

So suppose we limited the sexual offender registry to men who had shown themselves to be a threat to the safety of your children. Would that be a better policy?

Sex offenders are not the only people who come out of jail only to reoffend. Drunk drivers are often repeat offenders. Violent criminals often commit assaults once they have been released from prison; so do thieves and drug dealers. Robbers have a particularly high recidivism rate. If registries worked, why are there no registries for drunk drivers, for persons prone to physical violence, for murderers, drug dealers and robbers?

A moment's thought shows that these registries would not be effective. Knowing that the person who is about to knock you down with his car is a convicted drunk driver will not protect you. Knowing that the person, who is holding a gun on you while he takes your wallet, has been convicted of robbery before, does not help you. Similarly, knowing that this man was convicted of sexual misconduct towards a child does not help you much to protect your child.

The problem is that not everyone who is convicted of a crime will re-offend. Whether any particular ex-convict will re-offend depends a great deal on circumstances which are difficult, if not impossible to predict. We do know, however, that the harder we make the life of ex-prisoners, the more likely they are to commit another crime. To that extent, the sex-offender registries may well be counterproductive.

Our ignorance of who will and who will not re-offend makes it so very difficult to protect children. It would be better to use all the money spent on sex offender registries, their administration and prosecuting the people who failed to register, on research on recidivism in order to develop more reliable methods for predicting who is likely to re-offend and who is not.

Yes by all means let us protect our children from all harm. But sex offender registries and laws restricting where sex offenders may live and the whole system of ostracizing ex-convicts does not make children safer. It is therefore a disservice to parents because it makes them believe that their children are safe when they're not. Politicians who spread his false sense of security by continually tightening restrictions on sex offenders do a serious disservice to their constituents.