Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans feel negatively about sex offenders, even after they have served time in prison, according to research conducted by J.O. Hughes, the author of “Sickos? A Survival Guide for Sex Offenders, Survivors, and Society.” This suggests that in the eyes of most members of society, no punishment is too severe for people who commit sex crimes. However, look a little closer at the issue, and you’ll see that it’s not so cut and dried.
Sex Crimes Take a Serious Toll on Victims
Learning more about the victims of sex crimes presents one of the most powerful cases for strong sentences for their perpetrators.
The victim statement of a 23-year-old woman raped while unconscious at Stanford University in 2015 sheds some light on the suffering victims face.
“My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self-deprecating, tired, irritable, empty,” she wrote a year after her attack.
“I can’t sleep alone at night without having a light on, like a five-year-old, because I have nightmares of being touched where I cannot wake up … I used to pride myself on my independence, now I am afraid to go on walks in the evening, to attend social events with drinking among friends where I should be comfortable being.”
Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress are common. Victims of sex crimes are also 26 times more likely than the average person to use illicit drugs. Survivors may also have problems with fertility or sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, decreased immunity, or other health concerns. As a victim’s struggle continues long after the attack, it may seem only fair for people who commit sex offenses to face serious repercussions.
Sex Offender Registries Help Society Stay Informed
Sex offender registries put information at the fingertips of all Americans. This information allows us to make better choices about the places we choose to live, work, and raise our families.
Police began tracking sex offenders in the 1940s, but their information only became public knowledge in 1994, with the passing of the Jacob Wetterling Act. This law, which made sex offender registries mandatory in all states, was passed in honor of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy kidnapped in Minnesota, presumably by a local sex offender.
In 1996, the law was amended, and state sex offender registries were made public under Megan’s Law. Named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was kidnapped, raped, and strangled by her neighbor, the new law sought to give all people more information about their communities. The National Sex Offender Registry, which monitors criminals on state and federal levels, also launched in 1996.
National services like CheckThem.com make it easy for concerned citizens to learn whether they’re living near sexual predators from their computers or mobile devices.
Sex Offender Registry Information Under Fire
The sex offender registry is undoubtedly a useful tool to keep all concerned Americans informed. However, it’s important to remember that not all sex crimes are the same. Most Americans agree that the age of the offender and victim and the crime itself all impact the severity of a sex offense. However, the sex offender registry does not recognize these differences.
All sex crimes, from as insignificant as exposing oneself by urinating in public to as major as raping a minor, land perpetrators on the sex offender registry. In 2016, more than a quarter of people listed on the registry were juveniles. For these children, a lapse in judgment could follow them throughout their lives.
Take the case of Jacob, for example. When he was 11, Jacob joined the registry after inappropriately touching his sister. Now, at the age of 26, Jacob’s mistake still haunts him. He struggles to find work, as employers can access his record, and he cannot live near a school, park, or playground. When young people offend as Jacob did it’s usually because they’re simply curious and lack guidance, so it’s debatable whether people like Jacob should receive a place on the registry as adult offenders do.
Current Laws Don’t Consider New Behavior Like Sexting
Current sex offense laws have failed to keep pace with evolving technology. This means that any sexually explicit image of minors, even one that minors themselves send to a love interest, is considered child pornography. Therefore, any young person that sends, receives, or has such an image on his or her phone, can be charged and placed on a juvenile sex offender list. Attorneys and judges in Tennessee are among the influential people aiming to change laws to protect young people engaged in sexting.
Despite warnings from teachers and other authority figures, studies show that 40 percent of teens have exchanged sexually explicit images with other teens. That number is also rising, according to District Attorney Michael Dunavant. He told WMCAction5 News that his state’s current law, which can see teens involved in sexting listed as sex offenders until they turn 25, “seems heavy handed.” Judge Dan Michael added that due to the state’s laws, he’s had to put people on the sex offender registry that he didn’t want to, which is “very, very difficult.”
Parents are similarly concerned about the impact of current laws.
“I’m a mother of four sons and two daughters, and I think it would be absolutely ridiculous that any of my children — as juveniles — could suffer such a harsh punishment,” Niki Barnes added.
Tennessee is one of at least 30 states which do not have legislation specific to sexting. It seeks to change this with a new bill which makes sexting between juveniles a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. With these changes, sexting teens wouldn’t become part of the sex offender registry. Adult offenders would still face the existing stricter punishments. If the bill is passed, it could become law by July 1, 2017.
As we grow to understand more about sex offenders and their crimes, no doubt the ways we punish them will continue to evolve. As this evolution occurs, it’s important that we balance the rights of sex offenders with the public’s safety.