“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.
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 10 people arrested for sex offenses have no prior convictions for this category of crime, so they would not show up in sex offender registries.
Meanwhile, the people on sex offender lists may pose little or no threat. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch found that “at least 28 states require registration as a sex offender for someone convicted of having consensual sex with another teenager, if the offender was either age 17 or two years older than the other party.” Eleven states set no minimum age difference. “It’s one thing if you are a 40-year-old having sex with a 13-year-old,” says the report’s co-author and editor, Jamie Fellner, senior adviser to the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. “It’s another thing if you’re a 17-year-old boy having sex with your 16-year-old or 15-year-old girlfriend. Registration as a sex offender is just completely inappropriate there, does nothing to promote public safety, but ruins lives.”
A man who was convicted of statutory rape when he was 16 for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend told Human Rights Watch: “We were in love. And now we are married. So it’s like I am on the registry for having premarital sex. Does having premarital sex make me a danger to society? My wife doesn’t think so.”
The Human Rights Watch report also found that at least five states required registration for offenses related to adult prostitution, at least 13 required registration for public urination, and at least 32 required registration for exposing one’s genitals in public. And from the information given in a registry, which typically is limited to a vague legal description of the offense, it is often hard to tell what someone did to end up there. “Without any further information, it is difficult to provide reasonable steps that people can take to help keep themselves safe,” says Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “Just knowing that there is someone living next door to you who’s committed a sexual offense doesn’t necessarily give you enough information to know what you’re supposed to do about it.” In fact, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Connecticut’s sex offender registry in 2003, it did so partly because the state expressly disavowed any claims about the “current dangerousness” of the people in its electronic pillory, which meant they did not have a due process right to a hearing on that question.
Consider the case of Tony Washington, a promising college football player whose professional career was derailed by a conversation-stopping offense he committed almost a decade ago: At the age of 16, he had consensual sex with his 15-year-old sister. A 2010 profile of Washington in ESPN magazine explained the context of this forbidden liaison: a troubled, dispiriting childhood in the rougher sections of New Orleans, where Washington was constantly threatened by violence and had few sources of emotional support. Although he overcame a deprived background to become a star player at Abilene Christian University in Texas, his taboo-breaking transgression has deterred professional teams from drafting him and will mark him until the day he dies.
If you search for Washington’s name in the Texas sex offender registry or the U.S. Justice Department’s nationwide database, you will see photographs, a physical description, his date of birth, and his home address. His offense is listed as “prohibited sexual conduct,” which most people, given the context, will assume refers to some sort of predatory crime. Few people will bother to look up the Texas statute explaining that consensual sex with several different kinds of relatives, including adopted siblings and first cousins, qualifies for this label, triggering the same lifelong registration requirement that applies to rapists and child molesters. (On its face, the law even covers sex between first cousins who were legally married in one of the 25 states that allow such unions.) Whatever you may think of Washington’s crime, it hardly marks him as a public menace whom women and children should fear, let alone as someone who will be a danger to others even when he is old and infirm.
Washington’s case illustrates another way in which the legal treatment of sex offenders is unusual. Although the records of juvenile offenses typically are sealed, sex registration is public, and it applies even to people who, like Washington, committed their offenses as teenagers or children. According to The Dallas Morning News, the sex offender registry in Texas, where Washington lives, includes about 4,000 people who were minors when they committed their crimes, a quarter of whom were under 14. Human Rights Watch interviewed the father of a 10-year-old boy accused of touching his 5-year-old cousin’s genitals. “My son doesn’t really understand what sex is,” he told the group, “so it’s hard to help him understand why he has to register as a sex offender.” This policy of tarring minors as sex offenders undermines a central aim of the juvenile justice system by burdening people with the mistakes of their youth for the rest of their lives.
‘No Area in Town Is Available to Live In’