The sexual offense registry — how did we get here?

By J . . . It started with a tragic event: the horrific actions against and slaying of Megan Kanka in 1994 by Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sexual offender no longer on supervision. Prior to this year, most sexual offenders were only required to do some kind of self-reporting to a local jurisdiction or some other supervising authority.  In the aftermath, the claims if the Kanka family had known the history of their neighbor, they would have protected their daughter from him proved compelling and ultimately led to one of the most contentious, litigated, and often damaging legal protection schemes every conceived.

However, there is more to the story.

Megan Kanka wasn’t the only child whose circumstances helped create the perfect storm that led to the creation of a sexual offense registry. Prior to Megan, in 1989, eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling was taken by a stranger while bicycling and was murdered. Although his body would not be discovered nor his killer identified for twenty-seven years, his kidnapping and disappearance led to the Wetterling Act, which required each state to create a registry, and was instrumental in what was to follow.

In 1994 a New Jersey representative named Paul Kramer sponsored a multi-part bill that would later become the New Jersey Megan’s Law bill. This was then moved to the national level in 1996, a time when Newt Gingrich presided over the House and Trent Lott was majority leader in the senate.

Politicians had already discovered by the mid ‘90s that a tough on crime approach was the surest path to getting and staying elected.

Fast forward to 2006 and the disappearance and subsequent murder of Adam Walsh, a crime that was never officially labeled a sexual crime, a crime confessed to by a man with no history of sexual offending. Adam’s father John Walsh, however, hitched his coattails to the sex offender wagon, devoting his resource to getting SORNA and the Walsh Act passed and building a successful television career for himself in the process. This completed the set of complex laws that essentially solidifies the registries of all states, placing any state that does not adopt them under sanctions and creating the illusion that there is a federal sexual offense registry.

And what has this led to? We now have QAnon, a group devoted to hunting pedophiles. They were formed on a website called 4chan and spread rapidly across the country, hunting local “pedophiles” using, among other devices, the sexual offense registry.

What does QAnon have in common with those who are responsible for creating the registry? Like them, they operate from a conservative, “law-and-order” platform, which resonates positively with a great many in our country. A basic tenet of this, one that is heard from one and all, is the need to help and protect children.

But does the registry do that?

The answer is an emphatic NO. In fact, no major study (and there have been thousands) has ever confirmed that the registry has made a notable elimination of any hazards to young persons from the actions of anyone who has a prior conviction for a sexual crime.

With or without the registry, it is completely dependent on the individual whether reoffenses occur or not. The registry is nothing more than an address book of people who have been marked as undesirable to hire, undesirable to live near, and unfit to remain in public.

No empirical evidence exists to show that the registry justifies the money invested, the time spent, or the privacy violation and enhanced danger it brings about.

Why do we continue to allow the existence of something that costs so much money, violates so many people’s rights, and doesn’t even do what it claims to do?

The easy answer? Because the money runs too deep. What has come to be the “sex offender industry” has become so entrenched, with so many people at so many levels benefitting from its existence, that dismantling it will be very difficult.

The answer to that is to keep hammering away with lawsuits, studies, and education.

Just keep hammering away.

a guest writer

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