Human Rights Watch urges the reform of state and federal registration and community notification laws, and the elimination of residency restrictions, because they violate basic rights of former offenders. During two years of investigation for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted over interviews with victims of sexual violence and their relatives, former offenders, law enforcement and government officials, treatment providers, researchers, and child safety advocates.
Protecting children requires a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach than politicians have been willing to support. There is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence. Residency restrictions banish former offenders from entire towns and cities, forcing them to live far from homes, families, jobs and treatment, and hindering law-enforcement supervision.
Residency restrictions are counterproductive to public safety and harmful to former offenders. Sex offender laws reflect public concern that children are at grave risk of sexual abuse by strangers who are repeat offenders. As the report documents, however, the real risks children face are quite different: Moreover, treatment can be effective even for people who have committed serious sex crimes.
Because registration requirements are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, there are more than , registered sex offenders in the US, including individuals convicted of non-violent crimes such as consensual sex between teenagers, prostitution, and public urination, as well as those who committed their only offenses decades ago.
Nor do they offer former offenders a way to get off the registry upon a showing of rehabilitation or years of lawful behavior. Human Rights Watch found there is scant justification for ever registering juvenile offenders, even those who have committed serious offenses. Most are likely to outgrow such behavior, particularly if given treatment. Recidivism rates for juvenile offenders are extremely low, and few adult offenders ever committed sex crimes as youth.
The laws do not limit access to online registries: The consequences to registrants are devastating. Their privacy is shattered. Many cannot get or keep jobs or find affordable housing. Former offenders included on online registries have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through windows, and feces left on their doorsteps.
They have been beaten, burned, stabbed, and had their homes set on fire. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries.
Other registrants have been driven to suicide. Human Rights Watch acknowledges the desire of parents to know if dangerous offenders live next-door. But carefully tailored community notification, provided directly by law enforcement agents, would supply them with the information they want while minimizing the harm to former offenders. Residency Restrictions A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance typically to 2, feet of places where children gather, for example, schools, playgrounds and daycare centers.
Many of these restrictions apply even to offenders who were not convicted of abusing children. With regard to offenders who did victimize children, available data suggest that prohibiting them from living near any place where children gather does not reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend.
Many law enforcement officials and sex offender treatment providers emphasize the importance of stability and support in reducing recidivism. They decry residency restrictions as counterproductive because they isolate and push underground people who may need family contact, treatment and supervision. Existing parole and probation laws permit individualized restrictions and conditions to be placed on former offenders when appropriate. Human Rights Watch concludes residency restriction laws should be eliminated.
One woman, who as a high-school student had oral sex with another teenager, had to leave her home because it is near a daycare center. A softball coach, who six years ago grabbed the buttocks of a year-old team member, cannot live with his wife and family because their home falls within a restricted zone. It forces states to either dramatically increase the scope and duration of registration and community notification restrictions — including requiring states to register youths as young as 14 — or lose some federal law enforcement grant money.
Compliance with the Adam Walsh Act will preclude states from adopting more carefully calibrated and cost-effective registration and community notification policies.
At least some states are debating whether the costs of complying with the law outweigh the benefits. Community notification should be undertaken only by law enforcement officers and only about those registrants who pose a significant risk of reoffending.