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Sex Offender Sentences: A Closer Look

Whether you think you may have become acquainted with a sex offender or you just want to keep your family safe from harm, you need to know the basics of sex offender sentences. Find out how sex crime sentencing differs from state to state and learn how to get data on sex offenders in your vicinity.

History of Sex Offender Tracking

Despite the severity and horrific nature of many sex crimes, authorities only began to track offenders in the 1940s. The comprehensive sex offender registries that exist today only date back to the 1990s, when a series of attacks on children prompted new standards for tracking offenders.

In fact, a 1994 law known as the Jacob Wetterling Act was the first to require states to track and register sex offenders. Subsequent legislation, such as Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Act, required states to make sex offender data public and established standards for tracking perpetrators.

A State-by-State Look at Sex Offender Sentencing

As a result of these laws, sex offender tracking has become more standardized across the nation. Most jurisdictions make at least basic information about sex offenders public, but like most offenses, sex crime sentencing isn’t subject to nationwide restrictions. Instead, it’s up to each individual state to establish sentencing standards for sex offenders. That means states generally determine types of punishment, minimum and maximum terms, and limits for fines.

In most cases, a jury is responsible for finding a perpetrator guilty of a particular sexual offense, and then the judge determines the sentence. While each state has guidelines for sex offender sentencing, most judges also consider a number of factors as they determine the sentence. The perpetrator’s prior criminal history, the seriousness of the crime, and the offender’s level of remorse can all affect the severity of the punishment.

For instance, in Vermont, sex offenders face 2 to 15 years for their first offense of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, 5 years to life in prison for their second offense, and 10 years to life in prison for their third offense. Perpetrators face five years to life in prison for aggravated sexual assault and up to five years for possession of child pornography.

Depending on the offense, perpetrators must join the state sex offender registry for anywhere from 10 years to the rest of their lives. Local authorities may also notify neighbors, schools, and youth organizations about the perpetrator.

In California, sex offenders typically serve two to four years in prison for sexual assault, along with fines up to $10,000. Known as a determinate sentence, these punishments come with specific terms and time periods decided by the sentencing judge.

In New York, sex offender sentencing terms are more lax in many cases, since sexual assault is considered a Class D felony. In addition, sentences typically have indeterminate ranges instead of firm limits, which means perpetrators may have to serve the minimum or maximum end of the range, depending on their behavior.

After several high-profile cases, some states have responded with a push for more stringent minimum sentences. Florida, for instance, more than doubled its minimum sentencing guidelines for sexual assault against children in the early 2000s. As the Vera Institute of Justice states, dozens of other states have followed suit by establishing their own form of Jessica’s Law, the Florida legislation that mandates a punishment of at least 25 years for first-time sex offenses against children.

Some states, however, still have less stringent sexual assault laws on the books. In New York, for instance, child sexual assault victims must report crimes before the age of 24, which means perpetrators can’t be prosecuted if their victims pass that threshold without coming forward with an accusation. In Mississippi, those convicted of rape can face life terms in prison. However, the definition of the crime implies that it can only be committed against a “female of previous chaste character,” which severely limits the potential of convicting and sentencing perpetrators of this crime.

Sex offender sentences

How Federal Law Affects Sex Offender Sentencing

While federal law doesn’t establish strict nationwide rules for sex offender sentencing, it does offer some guidelines. For instance, it stipulates a maximum prison sentence of 20 years for sexual assault and encourages judges to consider a range of factors when determining a sentence. It also requires criminals convicted of sexual assault to cover their victims’ expenses incurred as a result of the crime. Compensation may include medical expenses, attorney fees, and physical or occupational therapy.

In 2003, the PROTECT Act introduced improved protections for children against sexual predators. The act established a two strikes provision with a mandatory punishment of life in prison for any perpetrator who commits two sexual abuse offenses against a child. The PROTECT Act also established the AMBER Alert system, which notifies people in certain geographic areas about child abductions.

Establishment of the National Sex Offender Registry

In addition, the federal government has a system that serves as a national sex offender registry. The U.S. Department of Justice manages the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), which was established in 2005. An initiative from the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART), this resource compiles data from state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries throughout the nation.

Since it’s a public resource, concerned citizens can use this website to find out more about sex offenders who live, work, or even go to school in their neighborhoods. Keep in mind, however, that since there is no federal sex offender registry, the search won’t provide standardized information. Depending on the jurisdiction you’re searching, information may be relatively limited. If you want more comprehensive data about a sex offender, you may need to do a person search within the jurisdiction to uncover the information you want.

No matter which state you call home, you can learn more about potential sex offenders in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances. Use the sex offender search tool on to find perpetrators in your area, determine the neighborhoods where they live, and learn about the details of their crimes.