To many people, policies aimed at sex offenders make sense. They just do. Because everyone knows that sex offenders will invariably rack up more victims, they are doomed to reoffend, and we should just lock them up or kill them. There is no cure for pedophilia, so sex offenders are a lost cause that need to be shot.
However… I do not think the reality is nearly that simple, and how I came to that conclusion is likewise not simple. When I share that I am a victim of sexual abuse, people also seem to automatically think that I then hate and want to punish sex offenders. There is almost an expectation that, because I am a victim, I should take a certain stance on our policies and how we approach sex crimes. So, when I share that our sex offender policies are not working, and why, I think the tendency for people is to doubt that I am a victim, and accuse me of being a sex offender (how rude!).
I understand where people are coming from. But my abuse did not have as much “impact” on me than some of the stories I have heard from other survivors. My abuse affected my beliefs and my perspective more than anything else. I think I have every right, based on my experiences, to come to my own conclusions on this subject.
Walking Through Why I Looked Into This Issue
So years ago, when I was thinking of being an advocate and tossing that around with my therapist, my therapist said something like, “You may want to think awhile on that. Advocacy work is very political.” That was what got me thinking… why is that? How hard can it be to look up the facts on this issue? For that matter, what are the facts on this issue? What are the laws? What does the research say? What do other advocacy groups say? What should I say?
Where Did My Digging Take Me?
So I dug around. I think my first Google search — and mind you, my therapist had mentioned many times how many of the policies we have towards sex offenders originally started as an investigative tool for law enforcement — was something like, “Effectiveness of sex offender registration.” The first thing I found was a Human Rights Watch report, which argued that sex offender registration was ineffective because sex offenders have low recidivism.
Right, exactly. So I was like, “Say what? No they do not. Everyone says that sex offenders just keep doing it.” But this was Human Rights Watch. So I looked into that, and I Googled, “Sex offender recidivism studies.” The first thing I found at the time was a study suggesting that about 12% of offenders reoffend sexually, and about 30–40% reoffend with any crime. That study had a smaller sample size — 5,000 people or so — and I looked into other studies, I looked up meta-analyses.
A meta-analysis is a study that applies statistics and math to crunch the data from numerous studies, correcting for statistical errors, and the outcome is one gigantic report with a very large sample size. While meta-analyses have some flaws, they are very good at getting a very broad picture of a particular group of people. They can also help you find other studies, to see if the results of the literature is replicated elsewhere.
So when I was looking for meta-analyses, I found this one: An analysis of 118 studies with a total sample size of 45,398 sex offenders across 16 countries, and found that the sexual recidivism rate was 11.5%. So I looked into other studies done in the US, and found that the 11.5% was actually high for our nation. In Minnesota, the sexual recidivism rate is 7%, in California, it is .6%, and other states have similar findings, generally between 4–8%. From my understanding of recidivism, it only measures those who have gone to prison. Well, about half of sex offenders are juveniles when they commit their crime, so says Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau and other researchers who know such things, and juveniles do not often go to prison, they get sent to rehabilitative programs similar to probation. Plus, a lot of sexual abuse is never reported. Studying recidivism is looking at a small fraction of sexual crimes, in other words.
At this point, I was very confused. I mean, how could people so readily believe something that a simple Google search shows to be false? I began seeing how the issue is indeed political.
Then I began looking into what laws we had erected, and how much money and manpower we spend on those laws. Come to find out, just in the state of Minnesota, we spend about $93 million per year on sex offenders — civil commitment, registration, notification, etc — and our system is tame compared to other states. By contrast, the state of Minnesota spends $300,000 per year on preventing rape. In many states, offenders are not just required to register their name, address, cars, and workplaces (even after they have completed their sentence, for life in some cases). In many states, offenders had to fork over internet identifiers (whatever that even means), not participate in Halloween, get a stamp on their drivers license (and in some cases, their passports now), avoid living in certain places, not loiter in certain places…
I eventually concluded that learning all of the laws was impossible, and settled for a basic understanding of some of the harsher laws, and the laws in Minnesota and nationwide. For example, if an offender travels from one state to another, after a certain amount of time, they must register in the state they are vacationing. This effectively limits where they can travel and for how long. In some cases, it is just five days.
Digging Into The Origin Of These Laws
Digging into the origin of these laws was not easy. First, I had to hunt down information on the original sex offender registration laws — the Jacob Wetterling Act — and sure enough, that was passed as a list only visible to law enforcement so that new sexual crimes and stranger kidnappings could be better investigated. As my therapist had said, an investigative tool for law enforcement. From there, it became public with Megan’s Law, and soon, states began putting their own unique spin on the requirements.
Putting Our Focus In The Wrong Spot
The thing about what you learn about sex offenders is, treatment is available, highly effective, and most offenders never commit another same/similar offense. When sex offenders do commit another crime, it is almost overwhelmingly a probation/parole violation. That leads me to the conclusion that the issue is not some sexual deviance condition in the brain, it is that many sex offenders have a hard time following their restrictions. Well, if most sex offenders never repeat themselves with a sexual crime, our focus should not be on restrictions, but how we can best re-integrate them into the community. What volunteer programs can or should they be a part of? What job skills can we teach them? What kind of a support system do they have in the community, and how can we add to it?
Essentially, the focus is on punishing sex offenders, well after it is even effective at correcting their behavior, which should be the primary concern of most corrections departments. The focus is on what happens to punish the offender, not only after their crime and a victim (or several), but after the completion of their sentence. When I was in school, we were taught the beauty of the American criminal justice system: That people are presumed innocent unless they are proven guilty, that the guilty are assigned a sentence, and once they do their time, they get a second chance. We were taught due process, which means people can appeal if they feel they are indeed innocent or charged incorrectly, people can file grievances when they feel they were wronged, and all of this can work to make our system better.
In the United States, we have a constitution that guarantees our rights as human beings. We are guaranteed not to be cruelly punished for committing a crime, we are guaranteed to get due process for any punishment we face, and we are guaranteed that the government cannot go back and punish us a second time for the same crime. The government cannot also retroactively apply a punishment that was not in place before the commission of the crime. Part of the problem I have with all these sex offender laws is that they ignore these guarantees, and everyone seems just happy to go along with it. But what group is next? Those protections are there to avoid another tyrannical government that picks on particular groups of people.
Sex offender registration is not the order of a judge, it is in each state’s legislative code: If you are charged and convicted of statute XYZ, you must register for CDE amount of time. All of the extraneous requirements, like staying away from schools, parks, libraries, Halloween… is dependent on that requirement and again, the statute that someone was convicted of violating. It is not an assignment by a judge. In addition to those requirements, if someone is on probation or parole (thank you, NARSOL, for detailing this on Halloween with your conference call!), they have other requirements beyond the state’s requirements for sex offenders.
After The Fact
All of this is after an offender becomes an ex-offender and completes their sentence. All of this is after a victim has been harmed. In other words, they are a reaction to sex crimes, not a measure to prevent them. Not only this, but these policies exist under the presumption that they keep the public safer, yet it is not recidivist sex offenders who are responsible for most sex crimes. It is those with no criminal record.
That, by itself, is my biggest beef with sex offender policies: They take money, time, and attention away from focusing on making sure victims never become victims, and we focus that time, money, and attention on policies that largely do nothing but make us feel better, a massive placebo that does nothing to prevent future victims from suffering. As a victim of sexual abuse, that is not good enough. We must have policies that are effective, not policies that do nothing.
How I Feel About My Abusers
How I feel towards my abusers is complicated, because I think all three people need to be judged separately. None of them, as far as I know, were charged or convicted for their crime. That feels somewhat unfair. My first abuser, the man at the daycare, absolutely should have known better than to give oral sex to a three-year-old. I hope he was held accountable at some point. My second abuser, the teenager who exposed himself, was just a teen goofing off. If he had been involved in the justice system for that, that is not how he would be treated under today’s laws. He would be treated like a rapist. My third abuser, my mother, absolutely should have known better that a 12-year-old boy is perfectly capable of rubbing lotion on his own penis, thank you very much. At the same time, she is my mother, and she was trying to help, even if her help was unnecessary and inappropriate.
All three of these people affected the way I saw the world. I think in a just and fair society, all three of them would have their day in court, and receive a penalty that fit the severity of their behavior. The man at the daycare should have been required to attend a treatment program and given probation, and been thrown the book if he did not complete either requirement. The teenager should have been given a proper sex education course about consent, maybe pay a light fine. My mother should have gone through child protective services, and been educated in how to properly care for a child.
In a perfect world, that is what I would want. With what I know now, that is what I would want. I would not want any of them to face the laws I see today aimed at sex offenders. I would not want them to face the stigma and shame that I see those on the registry face. I would never want them to live the horror stories of a state trooper banging on the door at 11 PM, or being shut in a jail during a hurricane, or get a stamp on their passport. None of those things is justice.