What keeps us safe? It’s sure not the sexual offense registry

Published 4/16 at Life on the List

By Sandy Rozek

Sex offenders have always been with us. Those who are convicted of committing rape and sexual assault and child molestation have always been punished and then released into the community.

They were not registered. They did not have to “check in” with law enforcement once they were no longer on probation or parole. Their presence in the community as former sexual offenders was largely unknown. They lived and worked wherever they could with no restrictions on where; there were no imaginary lines drawn around parks or schools, no prohibition against trick-or treat or other Halloween activities, no requirement to notify law enforcement if their telephone number or place of employment changed.

According to the wisdom of today, reoffense should have been rampant. As each year more individuals, virtually all “first-timers,” are released after serving a sentence for a sexual crime, the sheer mass of these felons unleashed on an unsuspecting public, with no one tracking or constantly monitoring them, must have resulted in ever-increasing numbers of victims.

Stranger-rape victims must have been piling up in the streets. Those suffering from sexual assault must have overwhelmed the hospital system. Children must have been kidnapped from schools and parks in record numbers on a daily basis.

But none of those things happened.

Statistics are hard to come by. A study done in New York City (p.324), the Mayor’s Committee Report on Sex Offenses covering the years 1930 – 1939, reports, among others, these findings:

  • There was no wave of sex crime in New York City during the 1930’s. Although sex crimes receive more public attention than other types of crime, they represent only a small fraction of the sum total coming to the attention of the Police Department.
  • Most sex crimes are by first offenders . . . Offenders charged with sex felonies are less inclined to have records than other types of felons.
  • Sex crime is not habitual behavior for the great majority of convicted sex offenders. Police Department fingerprint records disclose that only 7%, 40 out of 555 offenders convicted of sex crimes in 1930, were again arrested on the same charge during the period from 1930 to 1941.

A Bureau of Justice report published in 1997 gives this information for forcible rape:

In 1976, 53 instances for each 100,000 female victims (Male victims were not counted until later.)

In 1980, 65 per 100,000

In 1988, 66 per 100,000

In 1995, 66 per 100,000

This was all pre-Megan’s Law registries. Furthermore, children were not being assaulted or kidnapped from parks or schools. Schools had no security monitors, no screening devices; parents and other members of the public were, for the most part, free to come and go as they wished. Children played in parks, in the streets, in neighbors’ yards, unmonitored and unharmed. The rare, rare occasion of a child being taken by a stranger – e.g., – Jaycee Dugard; Elizabeth Smart — was so remarkable that it dominated news cycles for months and even years.

The only recorded instance, ever, of a child being abducted and harmed on Halloween is the tragic case of Lisa French in Fond du Luc, Wisconsin, in 1973. The man who molested and killed her while she was trick or treating had no record of a previous sexual crime. To this day, in the United States, there is no other reported instance of a stranger molestation of a child during Halloween activities, neither before the proliferation of sexual offense registries and Halloween restrictions nor after.

Those convicted of sexual crimes did what those convicted of other crimes did: They served their sentences, struggled to gain employment on release, and assimilated into society as best they could. The only difference between former sexual offenders and those convicted of other offenses is that the reoffense rate for the former was and remains remarkably lower than for the later.

So what happened?

Jacob Wetterling happened (1987). Megan Kanka happened (1994). And years before them, although never proven to have been the result of a sexual crime, Adam Walsh had happened (1981).

These three children were all tragically murdered. Jacob and Megan were victims of sexual offenders. Their cases were rare, horrific, and catalytic.

In the years that followed, we saw the Jacob Wetterling Act (1994) that requires states to implement a sex offender and crimes against children registry, Megan’s Law (1996) requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders, and the Adam Walsh Act (2006) outlining a plethora of requirements pertaining to those on a sexual offense registry.

Individual states, not to be outdone by the federal government, rushed to implement further “protections.” Restrictions against where a registrant could live, work, or even be were proposed and eagerly passed by the voting public as they were presented as essential to “keep our children safe.” A wide variety of Halloween restrictions were implemented; an informal research project found that such restrictions were non-existent prior to 2003, when there were three articles announcing them. From there they climbed each year, and by 2014 numbered 177. At least one state makes it illegal for a person on the registry to give candy or a gift at Halloween, Christmas, Easter, or other holidays to any person 17 or younger; the statute makes no exception for one’s own children.

And now, fueled by politicians who yearly propose new legislation further restricting the rights and movements of persons required to register and adding new offenses yearly, and by the media, who quickly discovered that “sex offender” in a header is automatic click-bait, the American public is convinced that the registry and all of the restrictions against and requirements of registered persons are the only things standing between them and wholesale rape and destruction of women and children.

Fueled additionally by proliferation of the “frightening and high” recidivism myth and by a total disregard for studies that debunk essentially everything the public believes about those who commit sexual crime as well as for best practices for managing them, we find ourselves in the midst of a health crisis in which best practices and recommendations from health officials are either withheld from those on the registry or treated with dismay or hostility where they are extended.

Virtually every announcement of releases from prisons, recommended by experts, makes it clear that “sex offenders” will not be included. Only four states to date have put state-wide holds on the required in-person visits to verify or change information by those on a registry, also highly recommended.

When the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Dept. in Washington posted March 18 on their Facebook page that, in keeping with limiting face-to-face exposure as much as possible due to the Covid-19 crisis, “RSO services and check-ins will be delayed until April 6, 2020. Change of addresses can still be conducted by Certified Mail,” the comments included, “Who made the choice to close this? I am talking about the office where sex offenders check in? Was there absolutely no other step you could of [sic] taken? This makes me, a community member feel very concerned!” and “. . . sex offenders not having to check in until the office reopens. That in itself has caused me concern.”

Those remarks, however, showed remarkable restraint in light of those posted in response to New York releasing prisoners, including some with sexual offenses. “Wouldn’t a better approach be to use them as human test subjects? We could test all kinds of things on them and then expose them to COVID-19 and see what substances work. We could try cyanide, strychnine…” and “Did they castrate them first at least?” are representative of these.

National crises are wont to bring out both the best and the worst in humanity. This one will be no exception.

It is impossible at this point to know what changes in our society and our relationships with one another will occur as a result of our confrontation with the Coronavirus. One excellent thing that could come is a broader understanding of the actual and multi-faceted nature of sexual crime and those who commit it and a realization that the myriad of restraints placed on those with sexual crime convictions are not what has kept and will keep us safe.

There will always be sexual offenders. Sadly, that will not change. Those who are convicted will serve their sentences and again become a part of society. An almost minuscule percentage of those will reoffend. The vast majority will not. And our modern-day attempts at monitoring and tracking and restricting and controlling every aspect of their lives will have little to nothing to do with whether they do or whether they don’t.

Sandy Rozek

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.