Sex Offender Registries: A Brief History

The words “sex offender” have a major impact no matter what your circle. Parents are suspicious of them, children are warned to stay away from them, the media offers regular updates on who “they” are. In fact, the majority of today’s population agrees that sex offenders are dangerous and need to be tracked, registered, and reported. But how and when did this all start?

History of Sex Offender Registries

It may surprise you that the modern sex offender registry is a relatively new concept. Although the police started tracking sex offenders in the 1940’s, sex offender registries as we know them today have only been around for the last 20 years.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was a spike in sex crimes against children. Some were so brutal, they made national headlines and put an entire generation of parents and children on high-alert for “stranger danger.”

The main problem with these particular attacks was that the perpetrators had been previously arrested for sex crimes, but had been released. With no standard for tracking offenders, communities were caught completely unaware. The public demanded change, and states responded by creating standardized sex offender registries and offering public access.

Jacob Wetterling Act – 1994

Jacob Wetterling was only 11 when he was kidnapped in Minnesota in 1989. He was never found, but police think he was grabbed by a sexual predator who had molested other boys in the area. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed in his honor. The law required all states to have a sex offender registry and track known offenders.The law was the first of its kind and paved the way for registering all perpetrators, but at the time only law enforcement had access to the registries.

Megan’s Law – 1996

In 1994, seven-year-old Megan Kanka was abducted, raped, and strangled by her neighbor, a registered sex offender. After her death, Megan’s mother said if she had known the man was a sex offender, Megan would have been warned to stay away, and most likely would still be alive. She advocated that the registries needed to be public so communities would know about offenders living in their area. Her efforts resulted in Megan’s Law, enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The law amended the Wetterling Act by requiring law enforcement to not only track perpetrators, but also release relevant information about their offenses and whereabouts to the public. In 1996 a National Sex Offender Registry was also created to monitor criminals on both state and federal levels.

Adam Walsh Act (SORNA) – 2006

The next piece of major legislation came in 2006 and affected the management of registries. The Adam Walsh Act was named after Adam Walsh who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981. He was just six years old. The law is also known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act because it established national minimum standards to record and track perpetrators, as well as national standards on what information the public can have access to.

SMART Office: Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative

The Adam Walsh Act paved the way for the creation of the Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative – also known as the SMART Office. Operating under the US Justice Department, the SMART Office is the go-to resource for state, local, and federal law enforcement officials who want to make their sex offender registries as effective as possible. Thanks to the backing of the federal government, law enforcement and private citizens now have an ally when it comes to further developing sex offender registries and creating better notification strategies to keep the public informed and safe.

In 2011, the SMART Office, joined by the National Criminal Justice Association, conducted an in-depth study – the Sex Offender Management and Planning Initiative (SOMAPI). The goal of the study was to learn how registries are managed around the county and identify any new, successful programs. The study also looked at what resources law enforcement needs to create effective registration and tracking programs.

NCJA took an informal inventory of all sex offender management programs, including all three levels of sex crimes, and adult and juvenile perpetrators. The full report was published in 2012, and now shapes Office of Justice Programs’ policies and management of both sex offenders and public registries.

Legal Implications of Registries

The majority of people would say registering sex offenders and allowing public access to registries is a good thing. However, the way sex offender registries are currently handled has caused some to question their legal and social implications, specifically for juvenile offenders and minor sex crimes. One offense can land you on multiple sex offender registries for the rest of your life, impacting where you can live, what kind of job you can have, and more. Some wonder if that’s too high a price for small, one-time infractions like public indecency or urinating in public, especially if the offender was only a teenager.

The Way Forward

Sex offender registries and how they’re managed continues to evolve and change. As more studies are done and crimes continue to be redefined, laws and registries will eventually change to keep up. Only time will tell if the next change to sex offender registries takes the country forward or sets it back.

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