As an advocate for survivors of abuse and as someone who has personally been impacted by sexual violence, I care deeply about true accountability for offenders, prevention of new harm and the safety and healing of our communities. Because of those priorities and values, I was alarmed at The Register Guard’s editorial that advocated for a public safety policy that is disconnected from what we know works, does not keep our communities safe and fails to support families’ healing.
The overwhelming consensus from experts across the board is that sex offender registries do not to make communities safer. In one of the largest nationwide studies using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data, researchers found that after implementation of sex offender registration and notification laws, 70% of states experienced no change or saw an increase in the incidences of sexual assaults. It’s simply not a sensible public safety policy.
There are a number of reasons why the lists do not work. First, 95% of sex crimes are committed by people who would not be on any sex offender registry, even with full compliance. About 93% of sex crimes against children are committed by people close to that child, such as family members, authority figures or friends. So even in the best-case scenarios, sex offender registries massively miss the mark and provide a dangerous, false sense of protection for our children.
Worse still, registries route scarce resources away from sexual abuse prevention, leaving our children more vulnerable. The Justice Policy Institute estimates that it would cost states an average of $10 million per year per state to maintain a sex offender registry in full compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. As an instructor for child sexual abuse prevention classes, spending millions of dollars on efforts that are unsupported by data and mislead people into making less safe choices for their families literally hurts me in my heart.
Our limited public safety tax dollars should not be routed towards outdated, 90s-era programs that did not work when they were implemented and still do not work today. If it is any sign of how obsolete the idea of an all-encompassing public registry is, consider Patty Wetterling.
Wetterling helped get the first national sex offender registry laws passed after losing her son in a heartbreaking and tragic act of violence. After decades of intensive work in this area, she has seen how ineffective and harmful public registries are, and today she’s one of the most powerful national voices in opposition to them.
We should listen to victims and their families on this issue.
If we want to get real about crime prevention, there are ways to do so that actually work. We must focus public attention on prevention strategies supported by data: Learn the facts, talk with children, recognize the signs of abuse and grooming and react responsibly if a person discloses abuse.
Further, our public safety system needs to better meet survivors’ varied needs. Crime victims need a criminal justice response that truly cares about victims’ healing, not solely about punishing offenders. This means more accessible services, more victim control over the justice process, opportunities for offenders to take real responsibility for their actions rather than just sitting behind bars and recognition that sometimes a person is an offender and a survivor.
Our schools, hospitals and public services also need to be better equipped to respond to trauma. With proper training and resources, we can quickly and appropriately respond when children begin to show signs of suffering or distress.
And finally, our communities need services that are culturally specific so that all victims feel safe coming forward in a crisis, and all survivors have access to care that reflects and respects the diversity of our state.
There’s no one-size-fits-all response to what crime survivors or offenders need to become whole and safe again. It’s enormously important that our criminal justice system hold people accountable, but our responses must be based on what we know works.
Only then can we build toward a public safety environment that actually prevents crime, supports victims and makes families and communities stronger.
Kristina Knittel is a graduate of the UO law school, where she studied child advocacy law. Formerly an instructor for child sexual abuse prevention, she serves as a child and family advocate through her professional and volunteer work in the areas of trauma and resilience. She lives in Bend.