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Sex Offender Law Violates Rights, Puts Kids at Risk

John Hardenbergh,
Washington Legislative Office
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March 16, 2009

Last Tuesday, a U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing to evaluate states’ compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). That law requires that states scrap their sex offender monitoring programs and create online public registries of sex offenders according to strict new federal standards. Instead of basing the length of monitoring on an assessment of the chances that the person will reoffend, states must apply a three-tier system based solely on the person’s offense. The law covers all people convicted of crimes that involve a sexual act, including some minors and even covers people who had paid their debt to society decades ago. States that aren’t in compliance with this law by July 29, 2009, could lose a substantial piece of federal aid for state law enforcement.

SORNA will not prevent sexual victimization. In 2007, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report, No Easy Answers, which found that if anything, these laws are counterproductive. They make it harder for law enforcement to focus its resources on the truly dangerous individuals. And unrestricted public access to the registries results in ostracism and diminishes the likelihood of reintegration into society. Our increasingly scarce resources would be better spent on counseling for victims, education for the community, and treatment for the offenders.

We’ve gotten used to having few friends on this issue. We’re okay with this. We didn’t get into this business in order to make friends. With the exception of the criminal defense bar, there just aren’t a whole lot of people who want to stand up for the rights of sex offenders. So we were pleasantly surprised to hear the testimony of Emma J. Devillier, Assistant Attorney General of Louisiana, and Detective Bob Shilling, who works in the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit of the Seattle Police Department.

Bob Shilling was molested as a child, and has dedicated his life to ending sexual abuse. He testified that SORNA’s three-tier system is making his job more difficult. He argued that it’s more effective to base sex offender monitoring decisions on the actuarial risk-based system that attempting to calculate the chances that the person will reoffend and is currently used in over 20 states. Simply looking at the crime a person was convicted of tells you very little about the chance that he or she will reoffend. By adopting SORNA’s rigid categories, states governments and police departments will divert valuable resources away from policing high- and moderate-risk sex offenders to people whose risk of reoffending is very low.

Emma Devillier is a front-line prosecutor of sexual offenders in Louisiana, and was in charge of implementing SORNA’s requirements in the state. She also argued that SORNA will make it harder for her to do her job. Sex offenses can be very hard to try. Often there is no physical evidence and no witness besides the victim. If Devillier does not have the discretion to waive the sex offender registration requirements, her ability to get defendants to plead guilty will be compromised. She will have to bring more of these cases to trial, forcing the victims to publicly relive their personal trauma.

Knowing that laws like SORNA have done nothing to make us safer makes me suspect that many of the politicians who support them are thinking more about their next re-election campaign than actually protecting kids. I have a low tolerance for politicians who use kids to score cheap political points. It’s not like there isn’t anything else going on that Congress could be spending its time on instead of forcing counterproductive legislation down states’ throats.

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