What is the purpose of sex offender registries?
Two days ago, the Union-Recorder in Georgia published a bizarre editorial. The editorial board noted that the state’s sex offender registry system drives people into homelessness and deprived them of counseling and employment opportunities, but laments this fact only insofar as it allows registrants to “fly under the radar” and makes them “more difficult to track.” Georgia’s registry system, according to the authors, “places too much trust in the honor system” because requiring people to self-register “places too much confidence” in the registrant. They acknowledge that there are “strong penalties” for failing to register, including life in prison, but these apparently don’t go far enough, as some people with convictions could “choose to live on the fringes of the law.”
“As a society we have determined that in the case of convicted sexual offenders, the potential danger to the general public, and especially children, outweighs their rights to resume a normal life after the debt to society is paid,” the editorial board writes, but “despite all the concerns we have about civil liberties and individual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we simply have to know where these offenders are and what threat they pose to a community.” The authors propose no solutions. And, more to the point, they betray a fundamental ignorance of the fact that no empirical evidence shows that registries actually protect anyone. Some evidence indicates they make us less safe.
Sex offender registries weren’t designed to punish people, Dara Lind wrote for Vox in 2016. “The registry was designed for ‘sexual predators’ who repeatedly preyed on children (at least according to the fears of 1990s policymakers). The purpose was supposed to be not punishment but prevention. The theory: ‘Sexual predators’ were unable or unwilling to control their urges, and the government could not do enough to keep them away from children, so the job of avoiding ‘sexual predators’ needed to fall to parents.” But now, 20 years later, “the focus on sex crimes has shifted from sexual abuse of children to sexual assault and rape. The idea that criminals can’t control their behavior has been replaced by attention to the cultural and institutional failures that allow rapes to happen and go unpunished.” As a preventive tool, it hasn’t worked, Lind writes. “Instead, it’s caught up thousands of people in a tightly woven net of legal sanctions and social stigma. Registered sex offenders are constrained by where, with whom, and how they can live—then further constrained by harassment or shunning from neighbors and prejudice from employers.”
Despite ongoing stigma against those convicted of sex offenses, there has been some movement away from ever-restrictive sex registries and toward more productive solutions. The political pressure to oppose these efforts, however, is strong.
Recently, the governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have lifted state restrictions on how close to schools people convicted of sex crimes can live. The bill, which passed the state Assembly and Senate unanimously, would have repealed a state law that bars certain people from living less than 1,500 feet from schools, public parks, places of worship, or youth centers. The bill would also have required people be placed in their home county after being released. In his veto message, Evers said the change would have compromised children’s safety. “In testimony before lawmakers earlier this year, the State Public Defender’s Office said out-of-county placements often happen because counties can’t find a place to house offenders that meet the 1,500-foot requirement,” reports Wisconsin Public Radio. Senator Dan Feyen, a Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he agreed the distance is challenging for some and, in his opinion, arbitrary. “It’s just a number that’s made up.”
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of that state’s sex offender registry law. The latest iteration of the law, which took effect at the end of 2012, increased the “list of offenses subject to registration and notification—including a handful that are not sexual in nature—and imposing more stringent registration and notification rules,” reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The registry more than doubled. One of the cases before the high court deals with requirements under the current law for people classified as “sexually-violent predators,” those who have committed the most serious offenses and who are considered to have a high likelihood to reoffend. The question is whether lifetime registration, as well as lifetime counseling and community notification, constitute unlawful punishment.
In another case at issue, lawyers for a biochemical engineer with no prior record who was convicted of aggravated indecent assault and subject to lifetime registration are arguing that the law violates a fundamental right to reputation under the state Constitution. They posit that the law presumes that people convicted of certain sexual offenses cannot change and therefore are prone to reoffending. The lawyers “cite experts and studies that show the public holds a false perception that people convicted of sexual offenses will go on to reoffend, and that their risk for doing so lasts for years,” according to the Inquirer. “They said only a small number of offenders fit that bill, while the rest get lumped into that group, suffering a lifetime of harm. Their arguments go to the heart of the criminal justice reform movement blossoming across the country that aims to reduce harsh penalties for smaller offenses, and reform policies for offenders who, after serving prison time, suffer myriad social and financial hardships.”
Given the growing understanding of just how problematic these registries are, it is perhaps most remarkable that Nigeria is adopting a U.S.-style sex offense registry. “Campaigners have hailed the launch of Nigeria’s first sex offender register as a vital step towards tackling reported cases of sexual abuse, which are rising across the country,” reports The Guardian, in an article that notably lacks comments from critics. “The publicly accessible online register of people prosecuted for sexual violence since 2015 will allow public bodies and police authorities to conduct background checks and identify repeat offenders.”
Sexual violence indeed seems to be a serious problem in Nigeria, which stigmatizes those who come forward to report abuse. Despite the dearth of statistics, Unicef estimates that 1 in 4 girls in the country have experienced sexual violence by the age of 18 and few receive support. In Lagos, the most frequently assaulted group are children, many of whom are abused by relatives or family friends. Those who do come forward can be treated badly by authorities, according to the Guardian article. “We have cases where victims are being questioned in front of the perpetrators or in open spaces and criticized by officers for not remembering details like the road where the rape occurred,” said Oluwaseun Osowobi, the director of a Nigerian non-government organization that supports survivors of sexual violence. “Cases of sexual abuse are not prosecuted for flimsy reasons,” Osowobi added. “How police collect data is unprofessional and archaic. Police regularly misplace case-files or evidence. Eventually victims become exhausted by the system and give up.”
There is no doubt that this is all problematic and merits urgent attention. But the question is why a system that has already failed in the U.S. should be expected to succeed in Nigeria. Since few people are reported and fewer are convicted, it seems unlikely that anyone will be deterred by the idea that they now “have nowhere to hide,” as Osowobi put it. Beatrice Jedy-Agba, the executive secretary of Nigeria’s Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, said: “It enables bodies such as schools [and] hospitals to conduct background checks and it will deter sex offenders because they will know their names will be published, affecting their employment and role in society.” Until the culture that tolerates sex abuse and stigmatizes victims is inverted, however, it is hard to imagine that anyone will be so deterred. Nigeria and the U.S. would do better to be guided by evidence.