There are more than 800,000 Americans who are now required to register as sex offenders. And contrary to popular belief, violent serial pedophiles do not fill the ranks of the registered. Rather, a wide swath of sexual thoughts and actions can lead to the lifetime of stigmatization that being on the sex offender registry entails.
The modern sex offender registry is perhaps one of the greatest areas wherein reform is needed most, yet politically, is least likely to see it. The requirements are increasingly punitive. I have previously written on the impact such registries have on children: how the registry targets children for adult sexual predators. The situation is addressed well in a new piece:
The numbers of those currently on the registry are staggering, and continue to increase each year. Absent seismic shifts in criminal justice policy, the trend will likely continue. In a nod to Mencken’s admonition, the model popularized with sex offender registries is quietly being exported to other classes of crime — including white collar crimes, meth, guns, and animal abuse — despite little evidence that such registries accomplish much beyond branding its inhabitants irredeemable.
The number of people listed on a sex offender registry in the United States has grown from slightly more than 500,000 in 2005 to 874,725 today. Because so many are being placed on the registry, its impact is becoming increasingly unhelpful.
SORNA violations are increasingly become as frequent as drug crimes. Inevitably, every term of court has at least one felony SORNA.
Unsurprisingly, it is exceedingly easy to run afoul of the requirements, keeping those that do trapped in a cycle of legislatively-crafted “crime” that can be tantamount to a de facto life sentence. “Failure to register” is fast becoming the crime of choice for returning those on the registry to prison. In 2008 in Minnesota, failure to register charges became the most common reason sex offenders were returned to prison. Between 2000 to 2016, Texas saw a more than 700% increase in FTR arrests, from 252 in 2005 to 1,497 in 2017. To borrow a phrase from computer programming, this is not some kind of criminal justice bug.
It is a feature.
In Alabama, there is no misdemeanor SORNA violation. No matter how technical or trivial: every offense is a non-guideline felony. This means each person is fully exposed to the harshness of the Habitual Felon Statute.
Rather than narrowly target a very few dangerous offenders and allow them to be monitored by law enforcement, we have morphed our registry into a massive instrument of public censure and marginalization, while utterly failing to advance the purpose for which it was created. The social science is unequivocal: the registry doesn’t make us safer, or reduce sexual violence. What it does is ruin hundreds of thousands of lives — the lives of people like Adrian and Shawna — in a vain attempt to put a human face on our fears.