Monday, August 1, 2011

Federal Sex Offender Law May Create More Problems Than It Solves

CNN had an interesting piece this weekend about the lack of progress by the states in coming into compliance with the federal law the Adam Walsh Child Protection And Safety Act.

"States are very sympathetic to the need to supervise and penalize registered sex offenders. There's no softness on that population," Frederick said. "But any time you're going to be collecting and cataloging information on more people more often, that comes at a high cost. The question is whether it's worth it."

Many states don't want to change their laws; others believe the legislation's cost outweighs its predicted benefits, she said. Texas has put the estimated federal funding cuts at $1.4 million, compared to a cost of $38.7 million.

To see how the law has fared in practice, one need look no farther than Ohio, the first state to adopt the law in its original, most stringent form, in 2007.

Ohio's version of the Adam Walsh Act, SB 10, has resulted in more than 7,000 legal claims, according to the state public defender's office. It also has led to years of litigation, two state Supreme Court rulings and separate registry criteria for sex offenders whose crimes occurred before and after the law's enactment.

The slow unraveling of Ohio's law underscores some of the major criticism of the new federal scheme and the registry in general: that it stigmatizes offenders beyond hope of rehabilitation while giving the public a false sense of security.

Of course part of the problem is that like other pieces of "public safety" legislation sometimes public hysteria and the pressure to "do something" often leads to poorly thought out legislation that actually makes the problem worse. There is another interesting bit found in the story:

"I think we would have a better use of our time if we could determine who the most dangerous ones are," said Sheriff Jeff Grey of Mercer, Ohio. "Sometimes we get tied up registering the ones who are trying to do the right thing and don't have time to look for the ones that are out of compliance, but just because someone's registering and doing everything he's supposed to doesn't mean he's not going to reoffend."

Years ago when I was a police detective investigating child sex abuse crimes, I learned that children are most often victimized by someone in their home, not by strangers. In fact, the social service agencies had a coding system to list the relationship between the victim and offender and the one most often used was "Parent's Paramour" which is just a fancy way of saying "Momma's boyfriend". No sex offender registry is going to protect kids from someone inside the home.

I am not saying that all sex offender registration laws need to be abolished. However, it may be time to revamp them to ensure that they are having the desired effect.

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