Sex Offender Registries Don’t Keep Kids Safe
July 16, 2019 4:15 PM   Subscribe

At least 12 states require sex offender registration for public urination; five apply it to people charged with offenses related to sex work; 29 require it for consensual sex between teenagers. According to Human Rights Watch, people have been forced to spend decades on the registry for crimes they committed as young as 10 years old. An article by Michael Hobbes
posted by latkes (25 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
The US punishment bureaucracy is just completely incapable of making a distinction between serious and non-serious crimes. Any process, any punishment that is legislated to deal with the most heinous crimes will be instantly put to work at the task of immiserating the poor. Drug laws are supposed to prescribe worse penalties for dealers, but these enhancements are routinely -- usually! -- applied to regular users. And sex offender registration is supposed to protect us from predators, but here we are.

Cops, prosecutors and judges all treat the law as a toolbox. They don't care that some measure was passed to target the very worst offenders. If they can, they'll use it to threaten everyone who comes through the door to terrorize them into pleading guilty. Who knows what exact psychological motivations the actors in this system have, but what functionally determines their behavior is the quest to punish and threaten punishment, as harshly as possible.

With the system in its current state, what the laws say they mean and what legislators say about them is all but irrelevant. The best intentions are irrelevant. What matters is that every tool is a tool wielded for cruelty by the servants of an evil system.
posted by grobstein at 4:42 PM on July 16 [57 favorites]


There's a lot going on in this article. I'm not sure how much of this applies to registries in general or just to overly broad and punitive implementations of registries.

One argument here is that the registries are applied to crimes that they probably don't need to be applied to, like public urination. Does that mean we shouldn't have registries for rape or child sexual abuse? I don't find that convincing.

Certainly, the registries should not have a lot of onerous financial requirements like fees for polygraph tests. Granted. I could believe that the requirements about not being allowed to be within furlongs of a school or playground are not necessary.

Another argument in the article: child sex abuse is usually committed by someone known to the victim rather than a stranger. It's not clear to me what this has to do with the registries. Sex abuse perpetrators should probably not have access to children. They shouldn't be in a position to become a trusted authority to children in the future. It seems to me that warning parents in the area might be helpful in that regard, so parents know not to let that person babysit their kids. That is a thing that happens!

The example of the young man who downloaded a porn video of someone he knew to be under age is weird because that person definitely downloaded and shared child pornography and I'm not sure why I should be sympathetic.

posted by chrchr at 4:47 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]


I don't share the position that 'sex abuse perpetrators should probably not have access to children' because although it feels intuitively logical, there is no evidence that such a broad policy has any impact on rates of sexual abuse.

For one example, most sex abuse is perpetrated within trusted close relationships where the abuser holds authority or power. I've never checked the abuser registry for my neighborhood because my kid has no such relationship with my neighbors. In theory our neighbors have 'access' to my child, or at least they have proximity, but there's no evidence even abusers in my neighborhood have any chance of attempting to abuse my child who is a stranger to them.

At the end of the article the author cites professionals who suggest there is a much narrower place for registries for example for employers to use with people working with children. But being a teacher is very different from being a neighbor especially these days when kids rarely hang out in unknown neighbor's homes.

What does 'access to children' even mean? I mean, should someone who has committed literally any type of sexual abuse not be allowed out in public? The library? The pool? The grocery store? What do we as a society want to do with these folks? And why pull out sexual abuse above other abuse? A murderer can live next door to me after they've 'served their time'.
posted by latkes at 5:01 PM on July 16 [23 favorites]


The presence of Jeffrey Epstein's name on one of these lists -- even if he got out of a lot of the requirements, even if there was some kind of loophole in one of the states -- is absolutely the only thing he faced that approached an actual consequence.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:12 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I don't share the position that 'sex abuse perpetrators should probably not have access to children' because although it feels intuitively logical, there is no evidence that such a broad policy has any impact on rates of sexual abuse

And that tells us almost nothing because figuring out what determines sexual abuse rates, let alone accurately measuring them, is really really hard.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:18 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


If they disclosed exactly what happened every time we got a sex offender notification, we'd notice how the lists don't represent the people we think are on the list. Not that most of them are people we'd consider great neighbors, but they don't make better neighbors when sleeping in doorways, and the ones who're really dangerous--especially the ones who exploit positions of power to hurt women and children--are still invisible. Meanwhile, the general public thinks that law enforcement is doing a great job, because they don't get told the details. There are occasional really deep miscarriage-of-justice kinds of problems, but mostly the registries seem to be a way to pretend that the system is working better than it is.
posted by Sequence at 5:32 PM on July 16 [18 favorites]


I have experience housing sex offenders in IL which gave me an inside look intob how utterly ineffective these laws are. Because ultimately 1000 feet is just... 0.2 miles. Now in city as population dense as Chicago that makes most of the city unlivable , but the actual effort to get to schools, daycares, parks etc is actually really really low.

My issue I run into these days is that sex offenders are aging. The registries started in the 90s, so we're going on 30ish years . And elderly sex offenders need nursing homes just like everybody else. It becomes a myre of regulation and discrimination. I dunno how someone can say a sex offender who suffered a catastrophic stroke and is no longer ambulatory and really just barely alive can't stay at a nursing home, but these things really do happen.

I have so many feelings about the need to protect children and I just really believe at this point that registries aren't the tool. They might be useful in some instances but overall it's just noise.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but our current practices haven't solved the problem and made new ones in the process.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:31 PM on July 16 [35 favorites]


This is, and has been my job in one form or another for the last 15 years. Registries are flawed because the tools we use to determine risk are flawed. The STATIC-99r is currently the gold standard in the US, and it’s based on a Canadian population study, doesn’t work on women, and in my opinion greatly underestimates the risk posed by images of child sexual exploitation.

The science isn’t in, and most posters here seem to be on board with the current thought that It’s not going to be “raw proximity” that’s an issue ( I can count on one hand the number of sex offenders I know of who stole children off the street) it’s proximity and trust. I work / have worked with several offenders where they almost reflexively begin grooming the first vulnerable woman with children they meet, every time, sometimes from prison while doing time for child molestation.

Considering that as a society we barely believe children or women as it is, the registry allows us one tool to at least provide a buffer for people to check when googling their newest crush, or to help a judge understand that maybe their option of a “good local boy” is misguided.

Of course the other issues are the registry makes it harder to find a job, or housing, or supportive healthy friends, all of which make it harder for a person to succeed and more likely to reoffend. It’s. It’s not great and I’m not sure what the answer is.

The answer is a sweeping societal change where we listen to victims get real numbers and can do real science. But some nights it feels like people use the real, lifelong damage caused by these offender as an easy scapegoat but are unwilling to address the societal issues surrounding sexual assault.
posted by LastAtlanticWalrus at 10:18 PM on July 16 [22 favorites]


The mental gymnastics required to equate urinating with sex just boggles the mind. The streak of Puritanism throughout American culture can't be ignored--it's a very real thing and has persisted for a few centuries now. It's just amazing to me how people conflate nudity in any form with sex. It's a kind of arrested development.
posted by zardoz at 11:06 PM on July 16 [6 favorites]


"I don't share the position that 'sex abuse perpetrators should probably not have access to children' because although it feels intuitively logical, there is no evidence that such a broad policy has any impact on rates of sexual abuse"

Where I live there are no registries, and a certain sex offender, upon release, applied to work at an organization that provides support to molested children.

Fortunately there were people who knew who tattled. Unfortunately, he then moved. Latest news, he's been arrested again after raping at least three, possibly more, young boys.

Using registries to punish public urination is a disgusting over-extension of the law. Just because that needs to be fixed doesn't mean the basic idea of keeping track of people highly likely to re-offend is wrong.
posted by Cozybee at 12:15 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


Here in the Netherlands one needs a "Certificate of Conduct" for a lot of jobs - those where you have some form of power over kids being one of the categories, so teachers, sports coaches, etc, have to get one. The english language form to fill out is here. As a result, all you really get is "yes this person can do that job" or "no, that person cannot get that job" - there's no "registry" you can check to see if some person has abused kids in the past, but the effect is exactly what you want, it keeps people away from power they should not have.

Yes, things can be this simple.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:04 AM on July 17 [17 favorites]


The mental gymnastics required to equate urinating with sex just boggles the mind.

It's meant to allow prosecutors to get flashers convicted and registered without having to do the work of making flashing illegal and prosecuting it. Flashing is a serious crime which tends to be a strong indicator of future sexual violence. I'm honestly too tired of it to go into why prosecutors don't actually consistently prosecute people for the things they do, but they don't, so putting public urination on the registry list is the solution.

Of course, because grobstein is 100% right, prosecutors do not, at all, limit themselves to putting flashers on the registry. They use the law however they want. This ends up with people being registered as sex offenders even though they were actually just urinating in public (or drunk, or sick, or whatever and end up exposed on the sidewalk/in an alley).
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:00 AM on July 17 [9 favorites]


I work / have worked with several offenders where they almost reflexively begin grooming the first vulnerable woman with children they meet, every time, sometimes from prison while doing time for child molestation.

Thiiiiiiis.

The primary risk is not stranger danger, but your trusted family friend was a stranger at some point. The danger comes from your ex's new boyfriend, or the adult son of the nice lady down the hall who watches your kids sometimes. The rules excluding sex offenders from living near schools or whatever might not be necessary, but a simple publicly accessible registry could be a good tool for parents.
posted by chrchr at 11:02 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


In theory our neighbors have 'access' to my child, or at least they have proximity, but there's no evidence even abusers in my neighborhood have any chance of attempting to abuse my child who is a stranger to them.

Latkes, if I knew that one of my neighbors was a sex offender, I would know not to turn them from a stranger to a friend. I, for one, absolutely support sex offender registries (with the same-as-always caveats about racism and other biases inherent to the legal system as a whole), because the rates of recidivism for sex offenders is insanely high, and no parent of a child should be denied a fair warning about the next person they meet who might become a significant other or a family friend.
posted by MiraK at 11:20 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


If most of your friends are middle class or wealthier, I suspect that it doesn't effectively serve that purpose. The sex offender registry is full of people who didn't have the resources to keep themselves off of the registry despite knowing how terrible it is to be on it. Many (but not all) of those people are sex offenders. But a lot of sex offenders are not on it or anywhere close. Ultimately, it gives legislators, prosecutors, and police the ability to say they are doing something about sexual violence by registering anyone they can get their hands on, with minimal due process (if any), while, at the same time, they systematically fail to enforce laws against sexual violence.

I am actually quite friendly to the registry as a concept (probably much moreso than latkes) but I think it's important to be really clear that it is a smokescreen and not a legitimate effort to deter anyone from sexual violence or seriously protect anyone from the most likely sources of harm.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:32 AM on July 17 [8 favorites]


I mean, I would probably not hang out with someone on the sex offender registry unless I had a lot more information about what happened, and I also think that people overstate how many non-sex-offenders the registries include. Sometimes criticisms of the registries, to my ear, sound a lot like sexist criticisms of women for being overworried about sexual violence, quick to condemn "innocent" behavior, and the like. But I think it's important to be realistic about the fact that they do not reflect a meaningful attempt to actually identify the worst offenders or the offenders who would be dangerous. Instead, they reflect the people who were easiest to prosecute, which is an altogether different group of people.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:37 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


I mean, what? People are prosecuted all the time for actual sexual violence. Are all perpetrators of sexual violence prosecuted? Hell no. But a lot of actual sex offenders get prosecuted! Also you don't get on the list unless you're convicted of a crime, and I don't see how that's "minimal due process".

All of these things vary by jurisdiction, and no doubt there are shady prosecutors all over the place abusing sex offender registries. I don't see that registries are the problem though.
posted by chrchr at 11:51 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Also you don't get on the list unless you're convicted of a crime, and I don't see how that's "minimal due process".

People without resources get minimal due process in our legal system (which is really a lot of different systems, based on state law and local differences.). I honestly don’t know whether calling it minimal due process really reflects the situation because it implies that process doesn’t fall below a constitutionally minimal threshold, but it definitely does.

I can try to find you some further reading on this so you don’t have to take my word for it but not right now because I’m on my phone.

Suffice to say that I’m pretty law and order about this topic, but I can’t truthfully say that this is a good or effective system.

Also underenforcement is quite bad, moreso I suspect when the perpetrator has the cash to hire a lawyer and knows what is going on. I don’t know if you really disagree with me about that or just find it irrelevant. I can back it up pretty easily if you’re actually curious about it, I study it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:19 PM on July 17 [2 favorites]


Also I mean it about being happy to provide more info, it’s not a problem, but also fine if you/people aren’t interested. Your response might reasonably be that all of this is irrelevant to registries being bad or good, which makes sense. I don’t agree but I see how you might hold that position and I don’t want to go too far into the weeds on it if you don’t find it relevant.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:22 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


WRT the registry, from TFA:
The registry now includes more than 900,000 people, a population slightly greater than Vermont’s. At least 12 states require sex offender registration for public urination; five apply it to people charged with offenses related to sex work; 29 require it for consensual sex between teenagers. According to Human Rights Watch, people have been forced to spend decades on the registry for crimes they committed as young as 10 years old.
To paraphrase a well-known movie: ten-year-olds, dude. Something is severely fucked up about a system that's allegedly for protecting children but harms children.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:04 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Has anyone ever actually looked at this registry? Because there is quite a lot of info on there about what exact crime the person was convicted of.

If I see a friend in the registry for the crime of "indecent exposure" and the date of the judgement is when my friend was 12 years old, I'm gonna ignore it.

But - as it has actually literally happened to me - if my new next door neighbor's registry says they were, at the age of 20-something, convicted of raping an eight year old, I'm reporting them and making sure they do not live in the house beside mine because I HAVE an 8 yr old.

While it's wrong for people to be in the registry for frivolous crimes, please don't argue under the assumption that the registry provides no way to tell the difference between petty offences and serious ones.
posted by MiraK at 2:22 PM on July 17 [5 favorites]


There was a high-profile case in Illinois where a man applied to be removed from the sex offender registry a few years ago. He was 35ish, and had offended when he was 17 and had sex with a 15-year-old (they'd been dating for 2 years; Illinois has no Romeo-and-Juliet law.) He went to jail, began college while in jail, completed it when he got out, got married to the girl he statutorily raped after she finished college, they have three children and have been married 15ish years and he's had no further trouble with the law. He's not allowed to drop his children off at school or pick them up. Everyone agreed this was a terrible miscarriage of justice that could have been avoided completely if Illinois just had a Romeo-and-Juliet exemption to statutory rape, but no elected officials or judges were willing to work to remove him from the registry now that he was on it because they didn't want to be seen as "soft on child sex offenders."

When I was on the school board we had to review background checks which sometimes came up with sex offenses. There was a highly-qualified teacher we couldn't hire because he'd been picked up for public urination in another state and put on THAT state's sex offender registry, which made him ineligible for school positions in our state even though our state didn't care about peeing. (From the police report, it was apparently "peeing in a bush later in the evening because all the bathrooms in the park area were locked before the park event ended," while his girlfriend stood watch, so it wasn't flashing or even particularly public.) But there was an offender who raped a 17-year-old college freshman when he was a 22-year-old college senior, in a state where the age of consent was 16, whose parents hired a lawyer and who convinced the judge he was a "nice young man" and it was "youthful hijinks" and he plead down to misdemeanor assault of some kind and was NOT on the registry. We used a more thorough background check process than the standard one required by law, and it turned up this conviction and some student newspaper coverage of the assault where a BUNCH of young freshmen at the college talked about how he was a major creeper always hitting on the youngest women he could find. Anyway when he interviewed he told us he was VERY interested in coaching the girl's volleyball team and ... yeah, basically he was a predator allowed to plead out to something not-registry-worthy because he was wealthy and white and a "good kid" and I'm SURE he got hired at another school district who did only the minimal background check required by law where he is potentially assaulting teenaged girls.

So, yeah, limited usefulness.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:07 PM on July 17 [17 favorites]


I understand there are various philosophical and theoretical perspectives on these registries, but I think the material reality of how they play out should give us all pause.

Just saying, "with the same-as-always caveats about racism and other biases inherent to the legal system as a whole" is pretty hand-wavey. Less than 3% of criminal cases even go to trial because defendants, for a variety of structural reasons, are pressured to take a deal and plead guilty. African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. It's a big caveat to accept a punishment that is applied so vastly unevenly.

Jeffrey Epstein is on registries in NY and Florida, but it had no meaningful impact on his life as he flew around the world on his private jet or was just allowed to complete ignore the guidelines imposed on him by the registry because of his wealth and power. Meanwhile I've definitely met men who are perpetually homeless and even their parole officers can't find them housing because of their registration status. I think that should raise constitutional questions about double jeopardy. Were they sentenced to prison AND a life of homelessness?

But I also think we should ask what these registries are for? Do they reduce sexual abuse? There's no data to support that. I definitely understand not wanting an abuser next door, it's completely understandable. But where should that person live? Functionally, these policies mean people with more political leverage (almost always skin privilege, income, home ownership) can force abusers out of their own neighborhoods and into someone else's.

I'd like to address sexual abuse differently. The system in the Netherlands applied to certain job classifications seems reasonable. But addressing sexual abuse at the root - subsidized mental health care, empowerment and education programs for kids, improved social services to allow women and families much more easy access to reporting and support - seem like essential ingredients. The cultural shift we need to create a world that respects children and builds respect for healthy power relationships is a massive project but I think something everyone here would love to see happen.
posted by latkes at 6:50 AM on July 18 [9 favorites]


I'd just like to drop a rec for Michael Hobbes (and co-host Sarah Marshall)'s podcast You're Wrong About. It's actually amazing. They're witty, smart, and provide excellent commentary on events/false media narratives of the 90's. It's one of the only places I feel like I get deep, nuanced analysis of complex events in a way I've never really thought about before that makes complete sense. Strongly, strongly recommend.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 8:44 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


The latest episode of You're Wrong About is You're Wrong About … Sex Offenders. But scruffy-looking-nerfherder must have been referring to a different episode?
posted by chrchr at 2:52 PM on August 7


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