What Lee once called the Best Magazine on the Planet devoted this month’s issue to our criminal justice system. And today, they unveiled a searing indictment of sex offender registries. You really should read the whole thing. A few choice passages:
On Georgia’s exclusions zones which bar offenders from being near just about anything:
Under the 2006 law, all 490 registered sex offenders in DeKalb County, most of them men who as teenagers had consensual sex with younger girls, were required to move because their residences were within 1,000 feet of a covered location. The law applied even to sex offenders dying in nursing homes. One Georgia woman, labeled a sex offender because she performed fellatio on a 15-year-old boy when she was 17, had to move in 2005 because she was too close to a day care center. When the legislature added school bus stops to the list of prohibited locations in 2006, her new home became illegal as well.
On the claim that 90% of sex offenders are recidivists:
A 2003 Justice Department study of 9,700 sex offenders found that 5 percent were arrested for new sex crimes within three years of being released from prison. (By comparison, 23 percent of burglars were arrested for new burglaries, and 22 percent of people who had served time for nonsexual assault were arrested for new assaults.) Studies that cover longer periods find higher recidivism rates for sex offenders, but still nothing like those claimed by panic-promoting politicians [90%]. Two meta-analyses of studies involving a total of 29,000 sex offenders, published by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1998 and 2005, found a recidivism rate of 14 percent after four to six years. A study of 4,700 sex offenders, published by Public Safety Canada in 2004, found that 24 percent were charged with a new sex crime over a period of 15 years.
I would take those numbers with a lot of salt, since sex crimes tend to be under-reported. But they aren’t under-reported by a factor of five. And the recidivism rate among 17 year-olds who had sex with 15 year-olds or 30-year olds who took a leak in the woods has to be close to zero. Georgia’s own study indicated that only about 5% of those on registries were truly dangerous (which makes you wonder why they’re not still in jail). So, even if you ignore the consequences to individuals, we’re spreading our child-protecting resources out by a factor of four to twenty by putting people on registries who have no business being there.
The big problem with the registries is — stop me if you’ve heard his before — the Law of Unintended Consequences. The registries have encouraged prosecutorial overreach because they allow prosecutors to bring ridiculous charges and then offer a “deal” of registering to the accused. They have also been consumed in the mentality of many prosecutors to bring charges in all cases without any discretion or common sense. Most people, if they heard that an 18 y/o had consensual sex with a 17 y/o would say, “Well, technically it might be illegal, but come on. Give ‘em a slap on the wrists.” You have to have gone to law school to think someone’s life should be ruined over that.
The problem, of course, is that no one is going to run for office on a platform of reforming the registries. To do so would expose the pol to the most damning political invective. The political class would not care about the subtleties; they’d say he wanted to let child molesters roam free. The incentive against any flexibility is so strong that Ricky Perry — he of the Presidential aspirations — recently vetoed a bill that would have carved out a Romeo-and-Juliet exemption to Texas age of consent laws. And I expect Reason’s article to draw a slew of “libertarians think child molesting is OK” invective from Balloon Juice or something.
I’m not saying that we should get rid of sex offender registries; I’m saying they should be limited to people who are, you know, dangerous. I’m saying that urinating in the woods should not get you on a registry; that a 17 year old who blows a 15 year old should not be on a registry; that a 16-year-old who has sex with a 13-year-old claiming to be 15 does not belong on a registry; that when a 17-year-old sends a naked picture to her 15-year-old boyfriend, they do not belong on registries; that having sex with a prostitute or being a prostitute or even just streaking should not land you on a registry. And these examples are not hypotheticals — all of them represent real people who have ended up on registries.
But the forces supporting this nonsense are strong. And those opposing it are outnumbered.