Perverted Justice: Sex Offender Laws Represent the Triumph of Outrage over Reason

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Perverted Justice: Sex Offender Laws Represent the Triumph of Outrage over Reason


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


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"IF WE HAD BEEN aware of his record," says Maureen Kanka, "my daughter would be alive today." She is referring, in a statement on the website of an anti-crime group she founded, to Jesse Timmendequas, a neighbor in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, who raped and murdered her 7-year-old daughter, Megan, in 1994. Three months later, the state legislature enacted Megan's Law, which created a publicly accessible registry of sex offenders.

"Without the registry," says Shirley Turner, "he would still be alive today." She is referring, in a 2006 interview with Human Rights Watch, to her 24-year-old son, William Elliot. He was murdered that year by a pedophile-hunting Canadian gunman who found his name and address in Maine's online database of sex offenders. Elliot's crime: When he was 19, he had sex with his girlfriend, who was three weeks shy of 16, the age of consent in Maine.

The panic that followed Megan Kanka's murder produced an alarm system that often fails to distinguish between dangerous predators like Timmendequas, who had a record of assaulting little girls, and nonviolent lawbreakers like Elliot, who posed no discernible threat to the general public. They are all mixed together in the online registries of sex offenders that every state is required to maintain as a condition of receiving federal law enforcement funding--a mandate imposed by another Megan's Law, enacted by Congress in 1996.

Registration only rarely leads to murder, but it routinely ruins relationships, triggers ostracism and harassment, and impedes education and employment.These burdens are compounded by state and local laws that ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks, day care centers, and other locations where children congregate. Such restrictions, which often apply even if an offender's crime had nothing to do with children, can be so extensive that entire cities are effectively off limits. In Miami local residence restrictions have given rise to a colony of more than 70 sex offenders who live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a bridge that crosses Biscayne Bay.

Some sex offenders, including nonviolent ones, will not live to see the underside of a bridge because they receive sentences that keep them behind bars until they die. Two decades of ever-more-punitive legislation have produced sentencing rules so bizarre and byzantine that the punishment for possessing images of sexually abused children can be more severe than the punishment for sexually abusing them. And even prisoners who complete their sentences may not go free, since the federal government and about half of the states have laws authorizing the indefinite civil commitment of sex offenders who would otherwise be released.

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American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions.

'I Am on the Registry for Having Premarital Sex'

The public branding of sex offenders through online registries is a reaction to horrible, highly publicized crimes, such as Megan Kanka's murder, in which strangers abduct, rape, and kill children. But this sort of crime is exceedingly rare. Data from the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that more than 90 percent of sexually abused minors are assaulted by relatives or acquaintances--people they trust. (According to the same survey, strangers commit just one in four sexual assaults on adults. They commit only 14 percent of sexual assaults reported to police.) Furthermore, according to a 1997 Justice Department study, nearly nine out of I o people arrested for sex offenses have no prior convictions for this category of crime, so they would not show up in sex offender registries.

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