By J.D. Tuccille
Much has been written -- for good reason -- about the tragic cases of people whose lives have been ruined by being classified and registered as "sex offenders" for consensual youthful liaisons with partners just a few months younger than the law allows. But is this the price we pay for immunizing ourselves against the real predators: rapists and adults who stalk actual children? A recent federal report suggests that the answer is "no." As efficient as the system is at registering youthful lovers, it's just that inefficient at tracking actual criminals.
Genarlow Wilson famously served over two years of a ten-year sentence for having consensual oral sex with a girl two years his junior when he was 17. His sentence was ultimately overturned as cruel and unusual, but many people across the country still face registration and harsh restrictions for similar "transgressions." As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized:
But Wilson is not the only young offender caught in a maze of draconian sex laws. Many young people are trapped on the state sex offender registry for nonviolent and consensual sex acts as teens.
The registry is a prison sentence in its own right, fencing even low-risk offenders off from most of society. Georgia law bars offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks. Last year, the General Assembly added churches, swimming pools and school bus stops to the list, and, for the first time, placed limits on where offenders could work. Now, sex offenders can't hold jobs near schools, child care centers or churches.
Some states have now moved to pass "Romeo and Juliet " laws to ease the consequences for young people who fall afoul of arbitrary age cut-offs, but people still remain on sex offender registries, with all that entails, for petty reasons. The harsh, often life-long restrictions of the sex-offender registries are supposed to buy us some security, even if a few innocent people get ground up in the machinery from time to time. So, how much security are we getting from those registries?
Not so much, say the feds. According to a report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice:
We found that the registries that make up the national sex offender registration system – the FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) and the state public sex offender registries accessed through OJP’s National Sex Offender Public Registry Website (NSOPR) – are inaccurate and incomplete. As a result, neither law enforcement officials nor the public can rely on the registries for identifying registered sex offenders, particularly those who are fugitives.
Specifically, the states have not entered records on approximately 22 percent of their registered sex offenders into NSOR and have not identified sex offenders who have failed to maintain a current registration. We also found that states do not consistently enter information into NSOR such as social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and vehicle identification numbers.
The NSOR is a centralized federal database of sex offenders available for use by law-enforcement agencies, whilet he NSOPR is a publicly available portal that searches state databases. Separately maintained, they're equally unreliable.
The not-even-good-enough-for-government-work status of the sex offender registries as of the beginning of 2009 is especially relevant because the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act requires all U.S. states, territories and tribes to have functioning, accurate and accessible registries by July 27, 2009 -- just a few months away. The registries are to be used to track offenders and to prosecute people convicted of sex crimes who fail to register or to keep their registration current if they move from one state to another or even from one address to another within a state. Inaccurate registries mean a hobbled ability to track offenders.
It could also, potentially, mean legal liability for those who do comply with the law but whose records spiraled into some black hole in the system. Bureaucratic incompetence could end up resulting in prison time for people who have made every attempt to keep their noses clean and their registrations current. Some of those people will be "criminals" whose crimes consisted of sleeping, as teenagers, with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Others will be people who committed real crimes but are trying to get their lives together.
Either way, public safety isn't being enhanced in any obvious way by the sex-offender registration system.
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin
"I want to go living after my death"-Anne Frank
"We have nothing to fear, but fear itself"-Franklin Delano Roosevelt
"This is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning"-Winston Churchill
"I only have to say this only once. Don't you ever fuck with me, Tony. Don't fuck with me."-Alejandro Sosa, "Scarface"