Are We Being Smart About Sex Offenders?


Photo by Brittany Greene via Flickr

A John Jay College professor explores whether laws that severely restrict the lives of thousands of sex offenders actually keep us safer.

It's been five years since the enactment of the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law named for the murdered son of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh that compels all 50 states to comply with a set of strict regulations for the registration and monitoring of sex offenders. Since passage, the deadline for compliance has been extended several times as states balked at some of the act's more controversial elements. So far, only four are in compliance, with yet another deadline looming in July.

Why are so many states dragging their feet? According to John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Karen J. Terry, author of “A 'Megan's Law' Sourcebook,” the answer may have more to do with tight state budgets than any particular ideology. Terry, whose essay, “What is Smart Sex Offender Policy?,” appears in the May issue of Criminology & Public Policy, spoke with The Crime Report's Julia Dahl about whether monitoring sex offenders for life is really the best way to keep our kids safe from sexual predators.

The Crime Report: In your essay for Criminology & Public Policy you write that sex offender registration laws are “not based on a sound theoretical framework of crime prevention and control.” What are they based on?

Karen Terry: Emotion. No politician is going to say, 'I don't want to pass legislation to help protect a child from being raped and killed—I'm going to look out for the rights of sex offenders.' We're scared of violent sexual offenders, and when we hear about kids who have been kidnapped and raped and killed [by strangers] we take steps based on those unique cases as opposed to the broad range of cases that are more likely to happen.

TCR: What kinds of cases are more likely?

KT: Ninety percent of kids who are abused are abused by someone they know, someone in a position of authority, like a parent, a babysitter, or a teacher. With these registries, we're warning our kids about strangers who could come and attack them when we should be warning them about people that they know. Is it good to let them know about a particular person who lives nearby? Sure, but I don't think that's necessarily going to keep them from ever being sexually abused.

TCR: Most states already have registration and notification laws for sex offenders. How does the Adam Walsh Act differ?

KT: It's more restrictive than the previous notification and registration laws. There are a number of requirements within the act that make the monitoring of sex offenders even stricter and allow them even less mobility in the community. One controversial aspect [in the law] states that any juvenile over the age of 14 would be subject to these requirements. But if you look at the empirical evidence, what article after article shows is that the majority of kids who commit sexual offenses as juveniles do not go on to offend as adults.

Another part of the law that states disagree with is the risk assessment procedure [which categorizes sex offenders in three levels—level three being the most serious]. Now, many states use an actuarial risk assessment procedure, which means they look at different factors related to the person's offenses when they assess them. The Adam Walsh Act says if someone has committed a certain type of offense they automatically get categorized at a certain level. It makes a lot more offenders level-three offenders, which then makes it much more expensive for the state.

TCR: If states don't comply, though, they risk losing federal funding.

KT: Right. I believe they would lose 10 percent of their Byrne funding. But the more restrictive the level of supervision, the more expensive an offender will be for the state. A number of states have [concluded] that it would cost them more to enact it that it would for them to not get the funding.

TCR: Has there been research done on whether these stricter registration laws are effective?

KT: It depends on how you measure it. Most people have looked at recidivism—have the laws reduced recidivism for people on the registries. But generally it doesn't seem to prevent crimes from happening.

We're already so far down the road of trying to become compliant with the regulations of the Adam Walsh Act that I don't think that anyone would advocate just getting rid of all these laws. But when you're talking about the very extensive supervision and monitoring for life of people who might not ever commit another crime like this—that's pretty extreme. What you can change perhaps is the number of people who are categorized as level-three offenders. There are ways in which you can modify [the law] so it's less restrictive, but you still are able to monitor the most serious offenders. When you cast the net too wide you lose sight of who the most serious offenders actually are.

ED NOTE: a full version of Prof. Terry's article can be purchased at the Criminology & Public Policy website.

Julia Dahl is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report.

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