Free-Range Kids

Body of Jacob Wetterling, the Missing Kid Who Launched the Sex Offender Registry, Found After 27 Years

Tragedy makes for terrible public policy.


National Center for Missing or Exploited Children

The remains of Jacob Wetterling have been found in Minnesota. Jacob was abducted in 1989 at age 11. It was a crime that scared, scarred, and deeply saddened people around the globe. As his mother Patti told the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday: "Our hearts are broken. We have no words."

As the Star-Tribune explained:

Jacob was snatched off his bike, half a mile from his home, by a masked man with a gun on a dark October night. Danny Heinrich, a suspect first questioned shortly after Jacob's disappearance and now in federal custody on child pornography charges, gave investigators the information that led to the boy's hidden grave.

The paper added that the authorities did not give much more information about why Heinrich, who has been in federal custody almost a year, suddenly decided to confess the whereabouts of the body.

Maybe we will learn more, maybe not. What hurts most is that whatever ray of hope the parents might have held onto is gone. It is painful to even imagine that light going dark.

It is painful in a more intellectual sense to contemplate the effect that Jacob's unspeakable fate had on American families. Not only did it grip us with dread, that dread—and anger—directly paved the way to the sex offender registry. As Jennifer Bleyer explained in this extraordinary article in City Pages about Jacob's mother, Patty, in 2013:

[T]he Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act…was part of a landmark violent crime bill in 1994 that required law enforcement in every state to maintain registries of convicted sex offenders and track where they lived after being released from prison.

Two years later, Megan's Law mandated making the registry public. As Bleyer notes:

Virtually all the major laws regarding sex offenders have been passed in the wake of grisly, high profile crimes against kids and, like Megan's Law, they bear victims' names as somber memorials. The laws tend to fuel the impression that sex offenders are a uniform class of creepy strangers lurking in the shadows who are bound to attack children over and over again.

That's what Patty Wetterling used to believe about sex offenders, too. Yet over the course of two decades immersed in the issue, she found her assumptions slowly chipped away. Contrary to the widely held fear of predator strangers, she learned that abductions like Jacob's are extremely rare, and that 90 percent of sexual offenses against children are committed by family members or acquaintances. While sex offenders are stereotyped as incurable serial abusers, a 2002 Bureau of Justice study found that they in fact have distinctly low recidivism rate of just 5.3 percent for other sex crimes within three years of being released from prison.

Though the term "sex offender" itself seems to reflexively imply child rapist, a broadening number of so-called victimless crimes are forcing people onto the rolls.

On this sad night, I won't get into all the reasons the public sex offender registry hasn't made us safer. You can read the Bleyer piece to see how Patti Wetterling herself has come to question this legacy of her son's disappearance. And she's not alone. Just a few days ago the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Michigan declared that many of the registry's ever-increasing requirements are unconstitutional. It is terrible how bad crimes make bad law.

But the real point tonight is that one young man did not get to live out his days. His family has lived without him for 27 years, and they have just learned they must live without him forever.

We pass laws because we wish there was a way to ease this sadness. It's an understandable impulse, even if the result seldom makes for good public policy.