Civil Liberties

Fix the Sex Offender Registry: This 19-Year-Old Is Not a Threat to Children

Public shaming, not public safety



Sunday New York Times readers just heard about the case of Zach Anderson, the 19-year-old who met a young woman he believed to be 17 via an online dating app, had sex with her once, and now sits in jail. After he gets out this week, he will spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender. He will also endure five years of court-mandated internet deprivation. He won't even be allowed to have an email address.

Why? His date lied about her age: she was actually 14. Our sex offender laws fail to distinguish between child rapists and teens having sex with other teens.

I wrote about Zach's case here at Reason about three weeks ago. As NYT's Julie Bosman reports:

As an Indiana resident, Mr. Anderson will most likely be listed on a sex offender registry for life, a sanction that requires him to be in regular contact with the authorities, to allow searches of his home every 90 days and to live far from schools, parks and other public places. His probation will also require him to stay off the Internet, though he needs it to study computer science.

Some advocates and legal authorities are holding up Mr. Anderson's case as the latest example of the overreach of sex offender registries, which gained favor in the 1990s as a tool for monitoring pedophiles and other people who committed sexual crimes. In the decades since, the registries have grown in number and scope; the nearly 800,000 people on registries in the United States go beyond adults who have sexually assaulted other adults or minors. Also listed are people found guilty of lesser offenses that run the gamut from urinating publicly to swapping lewd texts.

Bosman interviewed Brenda V. Jones, executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws, who pointed out that even in cases when judges wish to grant leniency (Zach's judge, the irascible Denis Wiley, did not), the mandates of the registry are draconian. And the registry is public, ostensibly to alert us to the "fiends" preying on minors nearby.

But Zach is not a fiend. He's also not alone. In fact, a quarter of the people on the registry were actually added to it as minors—minors who had sex with other minors. That doesn't make them predators. It makes them like most of us: people who have sex with other people in their age bracket. That's 200,000 young lives decimated, and 200,000 dots on sex offender maps, scaring parents from ever sending their kids outside again. (That's how I originally became interested in this issue. It's hard to go "free-range" when we're told that every dot on the map represents another threat to children.)

I would add that even the people who have committed heinous acts do not deserve to be on a public registry once they have served their time. Contrary to popular belief, sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of any criminals aside from murderers. But we don't have a public drug dealer registry, or arson registry, or assault registry.

That's because the sex offender registry is about public shaming, not public safety. Zach is just one fish caught up in this net of fear, grandstanding, a media devoted to scaring us, and good old American hypocrisy when it comes to sex: We love it as much as any species, but only allow ourselves to talk about it in terms of crime and danger.