We at The Sex Law and Policy Center observe an America in the midst of a Criminal War on Sex Offenders with a vanguard of rising hysteria and knee-jerk reaction. This frenzied attack must be countered with a balanced and fair argument, because stringent registration requirements for people convicted of sex crimes are swelling registries across the country. New York’s registry has more than doubled in size, Tennessee’s has tripled, and Florida’s has almost doubled since the modern registry for people convicted of sex crimes began. Our society is effectively building an eternal prison with the casualties of SORN policies.
These policies to monitor and track people have proven to be deleterious not only for the people listed, but also for their loved ones and society as a whole. Publicizing each registrant’s photo, home and employment address, conviction record, and other identifying information has exposed registrants and their loved ones to homelessness, unemployment, harassment, public humiliation, and vigilante justice with few options for release from registration obligations. While designed to protect society’s most vulnerable, registries have instead jeopardized public safety and destabilized communities.
The short, uncomplicated answer is fear; we are afraid of what we do not know or understand. Sensationalized media rhetoric leads us to believe all registrants are pedophiles, bound to commit another sexually-based offense against children, which is categorically untrue. Every day the American public is inundated with headlines that someone, somewhere, committed a sex crime; or, a person with a sex crime conviction is released back into the community, rearrested, failed to register, or some other dramatized story. This trite rhetoric adds fuel to their fear and ignorance, and ignites costly and ineffective policies.
The result has been an explosion: not only in the number of registrants but also in collateral damage. Currently over 800,000 people are registered for sex crimes and new registrants are added daily. Queer people, especially, are more likely to be incarcerated for sex crimes rather than crimes related to property, drugs, or supervision violations. Only a small percentage of registrants pose a legitimate risk to society, yet juveniles, registrants who have not sexually reoffended in over 20 years, registrants who were convicted for carrying HIV, and many others who do not pose a risk to public safety are not afforded a legitimate second chance. Until enough people learn to balance their emotions with an evidence-based approach, we will continue to see our registries swell.
Understandably it's difficult to reconcile our feelings about the harms of sexual offending, but let's pause and take a deep breath. All too often hurt people hurt people, and working towards more equitable and just solutions will require us to recognize that. We can engage and organize our communities in rational dialogues around SORN issues.
We at the SLAP Center envision a legal system free from the politics of outrage and fear. We can only bring that system to fruition by raising awareness of the myriad ways families and communities are destabilized by sex offender registries. Through knowledge, we can foster a conscientious open-minded opinion, respectful of our diversity, and encourage empathy for those harmed and the harm doers. Together, we can advance effective, evidence-based SORN solutions to promote public safety, strengthen communities, protect civil liberties, and restore dignity to impacted peoples.
Let’s get to work unpacking the hard truths about the impact of SORN so we can rummage for these solutions together!