In the past several weeks I have been researching the sex offender laws applicable to sex offenders living in Rhode Island and in South Carolina. While not surprising, the laws are anything but rational and they are certainly not empirically based. This goes across the board, not merely in Rhode Island or South Carolina but at both the state and federal levels.
The Adam Walsh Act of 2006 requires sex offenders to be classified in one of three tiers of supervision. Tier 1 sex offenders have lighter restrictions placed upon them (e.g., report to their sheriff’s department every year, most likely be on the public sex offender registry, and comply with any state or local residency requirements), while Tier 3 sex offenders have extraordinarily onerous restrictions (e.g., report to their sheriff’s department every 90 days, possibly be placed on GPS monitoring, have regular in-home and at work spot inspections, etc.).
On its face, it looks as if sex offenders are monitored — and have restrictions — according to their risk of reoffense.*1 After all, there are distinct qualifications for each tier assignment.*2 But what is the difference between a Tier 1, Tier 2, and a Tier 3 sex offender? The answer to this, not surprisingly, is not much. There are some differences in offense conduct or frequency, but not many. To put this in context, there are very few Tier 1 sex offenders compared to the number of Tier 2 sex offenders. And there are fewer Tier 3 sex offenders than Tier 2 sex offenders. But most sex offenders are merely grouped together in the second tier category.
If we accept that most sex offenders will be placed in Tier 2, with those particular restrictions and registration protocols, then we are also accepting that the one-size-fits-most view is employed. This results in a dilution of effective sex offender community monitoring. Essentially, those with a higher risk and those with a lower risk, who are clumped into Tier 2 sex offender registration and monitoring requirements, will receive the same level of community monitoring, outpatient treatment, and communal notification. This seems like a foolhardy public policy decision, from both a public safety and fiscal perspective.
Ask yourself this, does it sound right to have someone who is known to sexually assault children or women at a bar on the same level of community monitoring as someone who freely downloaded child pornography on their computer? It doesn’t sound right to me. In fact, the situation gets worse when you take into account that Tier 1 sex offenders are placed on the sex offender registry for fifteen years, Tier 2 twenty-five years, and Tier 3 for life.
Does it feel good? Sure. Just desserts. But does it protect your daughter, sister, mother, or wife? No, in fact, with the number of monitored sex offenders growing year after year, this means that those with a higher propensity for contact offenses and those at a higher risk for re-offense are actually being monitored less! That’s right: less! This is due to resources remaining the same while the sex offender population, which requires monitoring, grows exponentially. Emotion-based political decisions never work, but we feel better seeing this population punished even if it harms us in the long run.
Let’s all take a stand and acknowledge that while it might feel good to run sex offenders out of our neighborhoods, this is not the answer for the sex offender or for the community. Let’s say that your neighbor is a convicted drug possessor and a current drug addict. Do you try to take away his job, make enrolling in school more onerous, and try to make him or her feel as though they have no support or anyone to turn to? No, of course, you don’t. That just sounds like a relapse waiting to occur. And we don’t want that neighbor running over our kid on his skateboard or stealing the copper pipes out of our house to support his or her habit. Yet, this is exactly what we do with convicted sex offenders on community supervision. We run them out and leave them isolated, panicked and full of despair. Surely, such a condition can only make them more likely to re-offend.
We, as a people, essentially tell convicted sex offenders that we don’t want them to be able to find housing (as if we want convicted sex offenders to claim the curb in front of our house as their residence, which is what they must do if they are homeless), we try to legislate educational opportunities away from sex offenders, and we even try to stop them from working where we shop or are employed. Through our sex offender laws, America is essentially saying that we want to make stability the exception to the rule. Look at the Florida bridge situation. A colony — that’s right, a COLONY — of sex offenders were living under a bridge since they couldn’t find any place to live or a way to support themselves due to onerous sex offender laws in the state of Florida.*3 Ask yourself, who is more likely to re-offend, someone without a job, education, and a place to live or someone who has a certain level of stability and responsibility in their lives? It’s just that simple.
If we as a nation want to protect our children and minimize adult-on-adult sexual assaults and victimization, we must support smart on crime sex offender laws, not vengeful legislation. Is it just to punish wrongdoers? Yes. Does it feel good and right to ensure that wrongdoers don’t get away with their illicit activities? Absolutely. Is it smart to continue to run sex offenders out of our neighborhoods and reduce their levels of stability? Positively not. It’s time to make a change. It’s time for us to protect our children, families, and our communities. The way to do so is through treatment for sex offenders and a way for them to reintegrate back into society after a period of incarceration. While this acceptance and treatment might not feel just or deserved, it is what is required in order to minimize victimization and promote stabilization of this oft-discriminated against population.
*1-Most research indicates that sexual offenders have a very low rate of recidivism, much lower than most other types of offenders. This is the case even if the popular media preys on American citizen’s fears of sex offenders and hints that reality is the opposite.
*2-These sex offender tier qualifications differ depending on which state the sex offender resides. These tier assignments are different from local ordinances and state laws which restrict where sex offenders can live, work, and go to school. They are, in effect, yet another level of judicial control for this already controlled and monitored population.
*3-The sex offender colony situation was widely reported in the prison press. “Prison Legal News” published a number of articles about the incident, so too did a number of traditional news media outlets. In short, a group of around 100 sex offenders grouped together and lived in a colony under a highway overpass. This was due to them not being able to locate housing or obtain sustainable employment, a result of overly onerous sex offender regulations and laws in the state of Florida. As the population of the colony grew, the local probation department even furnished a portable generator so that the sex offenders in the colony could charge their GPS ankle monitors. This situation just goes to show how absurd sex offender laws currently are.