Sex Offender Registries Don’t Keep Kids Safe, But Politicians Keep Expanding Them Anyway

The first time Damian Winters got evicted was in 2015. He was living with his wife and two sons in suburban Nashville when his probation officer called his landlord and informed him that Winters was a registered sex offender.

The previous year, when he was 24 years old, Winters had been arrested for downloading a three-minute porn clip. The file description said the girl in the video was 16; the prosecutor said she was 14. He was charged with attempted sexual exploitation of a minor and, because he had used file-sharing software to download the video, attempted distribution of child pornography. 

Winters had no criminal record, no history of contact with children and no other illegal files on his computer. Facing an eight-year prison sentence, he had taken a plea deal that gave him six years’ probation and 15 years on Tennessee’s sex offender registry. 

The day after his landlord found all this out, Winters found a letter on his porch giving him and his family 72 hours to move out. He ended up in one homeless shelter, his wife and sons in another. 

He had no idea that it would be the last time he would ever live in a home. He has been sleeping in shelters, halfway houses and parked cars ever since. 

“I’ve lost everything so many times,” said Winters, who asked HuffPost not to use his real name due to concerns that it would add to the difficulty of finding housing and employment. 

His years on the registry have been an exercise in hitting rock bottom and then falling even further down. He has attempted suicide twice and checked himself into inpatient psychiatric facilities three times. The strain of living apart from his family eventually ended his marriage. Without an income to help keep his family afloat, his now-ex-wife had no choice but to take the kids and move back in with her parents in Ohio. Winters can’t visit without approval from his probation officer and can’t afford the bus fare very often anyway, so he only sees his sons a few times per year. At 29, he still has 10 years left before his name comes off the registry.

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“I don’t even forge relationships anymore,” Winters said. “People are judgmental, so I keep to myself. I go to work, I go to sleep and I try not to think about what’s going to take everything away the next time.”

Winters is a member of an expanding and invisible American underclass. In 1994, when Congress passed the first sex offender registration law, the list was reserved for law enforcement officials and only applied to the most serious offenders. Since then, American lawmakers at every level have relentlessly increased its scope and severity. 

The registry now includes more than 900,000 people, a population slightly greater than Vermont’s. At least 12 states require sex offender registration for public urination; five apply it to people charged with offenses related to sex work; 29 require it for consensual sex between teenagers. According to Human Rights Watch, people have been forced to spend decades on the registry for crimes they committed as young as 10 years old. 

Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein has become a symbol of the unequal application of sex offender registration laws. Though he pleaded guilty to soliciting an underage sex worker in 2007, Epstein continued to travel extensively without notifying authorities. Poor and minority offenders are routinely jailed for similar administrative infractions once they are placed on the registry.

“When we first started talking about registering sex offenders it seemed like a good idea,” said Jill Levenson, a Barry University researcher and social worker who has published more than 100 articles about sexual abuse. “But now the net has widened. They’re for life, there’s no mechanism to come off and there’s more restrictions on employment, housing and travel.”

The conditions imposed on registered sex offenders have become significantly more draconian over time. More than 30 states now require registrants to live at least 1,000 feet away from schools, churches and other places children congregate — a requirement that renders up to 99% of homes and apartment buildings off-limits. Some states require registered offenders to submit to regular polygraph tests and random police inspections. Florida adds “sexual predator” to the front of registrants’ driver’s licenses. Louisiana doesn’t allow sex offenders to evacuate from their own homes before natural disasters. 

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What explains these relentlessly tightening restrictions, Levenson said, is the domino effect that happens every time a city or state strengthens their registration laws. Politicians in neighboring jurisdictions, fearing an influx of offenders, feel they have no choice but to tighten their own. In April, Tennessee passed a new law restricting sex offenders from being alone with their own children, a direct response to a similar provision in Alabama.

Despite child sexual abuse declining by 60% between 1992 and 2010, states continue to legislate as if lenient sex offender laws are a national emergency. And, like so many other corners of the criminal justice system, the crackdown hasn’t affected all Americans equally. State registries are disproportionately black and overwhelmingly poor. As demonstrated by the recent case of Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire long accused of molesting underage girls, local prosecutors and judges have wide discretion to overlook wealthy offenders while imposing impossible restrictions on poorer ones. 

Sex offender registries continue to enjoy enthusiastic bipartisan support and meager media scrutiny despite any evidence that they achieve their stated goals.

“These laws are passed with good intentions,” Levenson said, “but they’re based on myths about sex offenses and they don’t keep people from reoffending. Community safety is important, but we need evidence-based policies that allow offenders to reintegrate into society. All we’re doing now is putting people in a position where they have nothing to lose.”

Sex offender registries are based on faulty assumptions and debunked myths.

While the criteria for sex offender registries vary widely between states, they are all based on the same two false assumptions: that sex offenders are uniquely likely to reoffend, and that notifying their employers, landlords and neighbors of their status will make that outcome less likely.

The first assumption is based on the “stranger danger” myth — that serial predators commit most offenses against children. In reality, strangers carry out only 7% of these crimes. Statistically speaking, the greatest risks to children are their parents, other children and authority figures they know and trust. 

Researchers consistently find that sex offenders are in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals. A study of nearly 1,800 sex offenders across four states found that only 10% reoffended in the decade after their release from prison — far lower than the 83% recidivism rate for parolees convicted of other crimes. 

Not only are registered sex offenders relatively unlikely to reoffend, but the registries themselves appear to have no effect whatsoever on recidivism rates. Numerous studies have found that enacting sex offender registries doesn’t reduce the rate of sex crimes and that states don’t see a drop in the number of abuse victims after enacting harsher requirements. 

One of the most common restrictions on registered sex offenders is the “buffer zone” preventing them from living or working near schools, parks or playgrounds. While these restrictions may seem like an obvious safety measure, they too appear to have no effect on abuse or recidivism rates. An analysis of 224 crimes committed by known offenders in Minnesota found that residential restrictions would not have prevented even one. Another study in New Jersey found that just 4.4% of offenders met their victims in the types of public, children-oriented spaces the registry restricts. 

“There isn’t any empirical relationship between where somebody lives and their likelihood of abusing a child,” Levenson said. Offenders will encounter children nearly everywhere, from grocery stores to city buses. The widest city and state buffer zones are 2,500 feet, or roughly a 15-minute walk. These measures, Levenson said, do little to protect children, but a lot to keep offenders from finding homes and jobs. 

If registries are about safety or about helping to solve future crimes, then we need to set them up for that. If they’re about punishment, then we need to admit it and deal with the unintended consequences. Michael Seto, forensic research director at The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group

Another common element of sex offender registries is public notification. Every state requires offenders to notify their employers, landlords and neighbors of their status. Some send out postcards to every resident within a two-block radius. Others offer mapping apps with photos and locations for each offender.  

This, too, appears to have no impact on recidivism. In fact, most of the available evidence indicates that it makes reoffending more likely. 

“There are already enormous barriers to reintegrating back into society after spending time in prison,” said Alexis Agathocleous, a civil rights lawyer who led a series of challenges to registration laws for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Sex offender registries cement those barriers.”

Winters said his registration status has made it nearly impossible to find employment. He worked at a Family Dollar before his arrest, but lost the job while he spent a month in pre-trial detention. He lost his last job, at a cafe, because his probation officer forgot to file the paperwork noting his new employer. The oversight constituted a probation violation, which landed him in prison for 9 months. 

He got a new job washing dishes at a local diner after he was released. His boss knows about his status and even showed up to testify to his character during one of his probation hearings. Despite Winters’ stellar work record, though, he can’t get a promotion ― Tennessee’s registry restrictions forbid him from taking jobs that could require him to supervise employees under 18. That also means he’s unlikely to get a raise from the $11.50 per hour he currently makes. 

“I don’t see the purpose of this other than keeping me miserable, poor and lonely for the rest of my life,” Winters said.

The rest of the country’s registrants face similar challenges. A 2014 survey of sex offenders five years after their release from prison found that 36% had never found employment. Another, in 2013, found that Florida registrants in counties with larger buffer zones around schools were more likely to be homeless. Numerous studies have found that being out of work and living on the streets significantly increase the risk of recidivism.

“People are less likely to reoffend when they have a sense of purpose,” Levenson said. “The more you’re able to build relationships and stay in stable housing and employment, the more you’re going to be invested in not doing something that will cause you to lose it.”

Registrants and their families are often subject to protests and abuse after they move into a new neighborhood. 

And these provisions also make rehabilitation and reintegration into society nearly impossible. In some states, drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters bar access to registrants. Some bar them from churches, a crucial source of stability for adults trying to get back on their feet. Notifying neighbors can encourage vigilantism and abuse toward offenders and their spouses and children. 

“It’s profoundly discouraging,” Levenson said. “For every other crime you go to prison, you do your time and the sentence ends, but for this, there’s no end.” 

Registries don’t work for high-risk sex offenders, either.

Perhaps Winters is an unfairly sympathetic protagonist for a feature about the excesses of sex offender registration. He’s young, his crime was nonviolent, and he’s never been accused of inappropriate contact with children. 

Sam Albertson, on the other hand, isn’t so sympathetic. In 2002, he molested his 9-year-old daughter. Six years later, she told a friend’s parents, who told the police. Albertson served eight years in prison and was released in 2015. He will be on the registry for the rest of his life. (Albertson also declined to use his real name.)

The question for the state of Tennessee is what to do with Albertson now. As a condition of his parole, he is forbidden to leave the county where he was convicted. The 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools and playgrounds, however, leaves him few options for housing. He drives a forklift on the overnight shift, but his wages barely cover a weekly motel room in one of the few neighborhoods where he’s allowed to legally reside. 

The fees that come with his registration status have also made it hard to rebuild his life. The state requires him to spend $40 per week on psychiatric treatment, $200 every six months for a polygraph test, and $200 per year for the police to notify his neighbors of his address. If he doesn’t pay his fees, he’ll be charged with a parole violation and sent back to prison. A month after he first spoke with HuffPost, he moved into his car. Now that his registration status has been changed to “transient,” he’ll have to pay $50 per month for an ankle monitor.

“I want to be a better person,” Albertson said, “but the system is designed to fail.”

Michael Seto, the forensic research director at The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and a prominent expert on sex abuse and pedophilia, said that the current registration system doesn’t take into account the vast diversity of characteristics, motivations and recidivism risk among people who have committed crimes against children.  

According to Seto, pedophiles — people who are attracted to prepubescent children — make up less than half of offenders who commit child sexual abuse. The rest suffer from a combination of mental illness or disability, other sexual disorders or disinhibitions due to drug or alcohol abuse. 

Albertson appears to match this pattern. He said he’s never been attracted to minors. Molesting his daughter was an expression of emotional instability and his own history of sexual abuse, he said.

None of this excuses Albertson’s crime, of course. But registry systems rarely take into account the complexities of sexual abuse or incorporate evidence on the factors that will reduce reoffending. Even when they do split registrants into high-, medium- and low-risk categories, they typically base these assessments on their crime alone. This leaves out critical information about the circumstances of their crime and the factors that could lead them to commit another. 

For registrants who aren’t attracted to children, restrictions like buffer zones around schools and postcards to their neighbors amount to disproportionate punishment. For registrants who are attracted to children, the high risk of homelessness, social ostracism and unemployment associated with their registration status may be pushing them in the wrong direction.

“If someone has an attraction to children, they need energy to control and manage those feelings,” Seto said. “If you take away their social support and if they don’t have something to do with their time, you diminish their ability to manage their urges and increase the likelihood that they’ll drink or use drugs. That’s a much greater risk factor than living close to a school.” 

Miami’s sex offender laws render large numbers of registrants homeless. Starting in the mid-2000s, a group of 75 sex offenders began living in a tent encampment under a bridge. Since then, it has grown to more than 300 people. 

Politicians are still unwilling to roll back sex offender registration laws.

The ineffectiveness of sex offender registries has been well-established for years, and yet lawmakers at every level are reluctant to roll them back. 

Brandon Buskey, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Smart Justice Project, said he’s not aware of a single jurisdiction that has voted to loosen its registry requirements voluntarily. In 2016, National Affairs noted that no enhancement of sex offender registry laws had ever failed a floor vote in a state legislature. Many pass unanimously and few earn any critical media coverage. 

“The logic is that if they save even one life, then they’re worth it,” Buskey said. “That’s the sentiment that is keeping them alive: You can’t prove that they won’t help someone, regardless of how many people we know they hurt.” 

Courts, however, are beginning to find this argument unconvincing. In 2015, judges in California and Michigan declared those states’ longstanding 2,000-foot buffer zones around schools unconstitutional. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina’s law banning sex offenders from using social media violated the First Amendment. The same year, a Colorado judge ruled that the “public shaming and banishment” caused by public notification amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The provision now applies only to violent offenders.

But the process of overturning registry restrictions is achingly slow and confoundingly specific. Earlier this year, Georgia struck down lifetime electronic monitoring for sex offenders but deemed it acceptable for criminals on probation. A number of states have ruled that registration is unconstitutional for juveniles and when applied retroactively — but acceptable in all other circumstances. An Iowa judge in 2004 declared that there was “no evidence demonstrating that a 2,000-foot ‘buffer zone’ actually protects children,” but his decision was later overruled by the State Supreme Court. 

Seto said one of the reasons for the ongoing push-and-pull over sex offender registries is that American institutions still haven’t decided what purpose they are intended to serve. When they were first devised, registries were primarily a tool for law enforcement. By now, they have become a form of retribution, a reminder for offenders and their communities that they are nothing more than their worst moment.

“If registries are about safety or about helping to solve future crimes, then we need to set them up for that,” Seto said. “If they’re about punishment, then we need to admit it and deal with the unintended consequences.”

A real solution to child sexual abuse, Seto said, would be humane, individualized and comprehensive.It would include more widely available mental health treatment for offenders after their crimes and the rest of the population to prevent them from happening in the first place. It would also involve educating parents about where the real risks lie, informing children about boundaries and consent and reforming law enforcement agencies to encourage victims to report — and take them seriously when they do. 

And while registries do have a role to play in reducing child sexual abuse —most researchers acknowledge that some offenders should not be allowed to work with children, for example — this goal could be achieved with targeted databases that that function more like background checks for employers and law enforcement. 

All of these steps would finally align America’s solution to sex abuse with the reality of the problem. 

“We’re always worrying about the creepy stranger at the playground,” Seto said, “but if we want to solve this problem, we have to improve safety at home.”

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