Recently, a new app came out for the iPhone: the Sex Offenders app*. It shows you a map of where you are (or want to look), and pinpoints all of the registered sex offenders on the map for you, with their exact addresses, photos and a tiny synopsis of what type of sex offense they committed.
This app is made possible because in the USA, every state keeps a list of these people and makes it publicly available. It's called the Sex Offenders registry, and is intended to be a measure to help concerned parents of children be aware of where in their area sex offenders live, so that (presumably) they can keep their kids away from these people.
I have a number of serious concerns about this registry, none from a personal reason or affiliation. I am not on any such list, and yet I feel personally endangered by their existence. Allow me to explain just what the main problems with the Sex Offenders Registry are.
First, the list's validity should be questioned: is it representative of what it purports to be?
As mentioned, the list exists so that concerned parents know who to keep their children away from. But what is a sex offender, and to what extent is this list truly representative of people to stay away from?
An article from The Economist, published yesterday, points out that in many states in the U.S., the list of sex offenders comprises not just of sexual predators or rapists, but can include anyone who so much as peed in public once, streaked at a football game, or gave someone a blowjob while in their teen years. A lot of examples are of two young people having perfectly consensual sex, no rape or harassment or anything negative involved. Boyfriends and girlfriends, people who in many cases have since married one another and now live together—sometimes with children. Are these the kind of people who you should be afraid of? Really?
With the indiscriminate nature of most of the country's sex offenders' registries, their validity quickly dwindles down to a banality, a joke that is neither funny nor helpful. Its reliability and usefulness is severely diminished, causing disproportionate amounts of fear and anger among the people consulting the list. More on that later.
Then, there is the purpose of the list: Is it effective?
In many cases, the list is maintained and made public under the claim that "sex offenders are mostly incorrigible", that they never improve on their behavior.
But is this true? Lawmakers and the like want you to believe this is true, but there are no statistics for this. There are, however, statistics that show a different reality. From the Economist's report:
A study of nearly 10,000 male sex offenders in 15 American states found that 5% were rearrested for a sex crime within three years. A meta-analysis of 29,000 sex offenders in Canada, Britain and America found that 24% had reoffended after 15 years.
This is a far cry from the supposed 75% to 90% that is often cited as the percentage for re-offenders. Additionally, a lot of these numbers (both statistic and hypothetical) offer no details on the nature of their samples; they often make no distinction on the type of sex offense in question. Someone who streaked during a football game once in their teen years and then again during their college years is a re-offending sex offender, but are they as dangerous as the one-time rapist who was never taught some basic morals and values that encourage respectful and non-violent behavior? Any sensible person would have to say No, that the latter example is a far bigger concern.
Additionally, there are no studies that show the presence of these lists has a positive effect on reducing the number of sex offenses in the state:
Publicly accessible sex-offender registries are intended to keep people safe. But there is little evidence that they do. A study by Kristen Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections found that the state's system for registering sex offenders and warning their neighbours cost millions of dollars and had no discernible effect on the number of sex crimes. Restricting where sex offenders can live is supposed to keep them away from potential victims, but it is doubtful that this works. A determined predator can always catch a bus.
Many sex offenses occur not because of easy access to possible victims—in today's well-connected world where distance to travel is easily overcome, proximity is a non-factor—but because of other causes: a mediocre upbringing, a social or even societal stress that stimulates sexual urges, and in many cases, simply a lack of self-discipline and self-control. These are not aspects you can control with geography and distance—unless you want to send all sex offenders to a deserted island, I suppose. Much like what the British did with Australia, it is not likely to be a particularly good solution.
Next, there is the monetary cost of the list: Is it worth the investment?
Maintaining a sex offenders list is a costly business for local governments. Every time a registered sex offender moves (in certain states), money is spent by local government(s) to make sure they live in a place not within 1,000 feet of a church or school or park. When a new school or so is built, money is spent on evicting all nearby sex offenders and finding them new homes. The adding of new sex offenders to the list and keeping registration on them takes time and time is money.
All things considered, the mere upkeep of these lists is extremely costly.
Rather than spend enormous amounts of money in a deluded attempt to protect hypothetical future victims, it could be spent on helping real victims deal with the harm inflicted on them, and on helping the offenders themselves to prevent them from recidivism.
This money could be spent on campaigns that reach out to the many women out there who have been raped or abused but who are afraid to report what's happened to them, or who can't for whatever other reason. These are women who, in most cases, can really use some help (therapy, support groups, etc.) but who are left on their own whilst government money is spent on tracking the sex offenders for, in many states, the rest of their lives.
Lastly, there is the societal cost of having these lists: Do they not cause more unnecessary harm than they ever, ever have prevented?
As has been pointed out above, there are no studies that report the presence of a list to have had a real impact in preventing sex offenses. Obviously, it's impossible to truly establish the effect they have had in preventing things that have therefore not happened, but all indications we have that are factual, empiric, show that these public registries don't prevent sex offenses.
What we do know, on the other hand, is that having these lists be publicly availablecauses a great deal of harm. Again, cited from the Economist's article:
In April 2006, for example, a vigilante shot and killed two sex offenders in Maine after finding their addresses on the registry. One of the victims had been convicted of having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 19. In Washington state in 2005 a man posed as an FBI agent to enter the home of two sex offenders, warning them that they were on a "hit list" on the internet. Then he killed them.
Murders of sex offenders are rare, but harassment is common. Most of the offenders interviewed for this article said they had experienced it. "Bill", who spent nine months in jail for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old when he was 27 and is now registered in North Carolina, says someone put up posters with his photograph on them around his district. (In at least four states, each offender's profile on the online registry comes with a handy "click to print" function.) The local kids promptly stopped playing with Bill's three children. And someone started leaving chopped-up sausages on his car, a possible reference to castration. Bill and his family moved house.
Thus far, there are many studies that show that the real effects caused by these public registries are a significantly negative impact on the lives of people on it. "So what", you might think, until you realize that most of the people listed are really not heinous or bad people at all. Having sex with your girlfriend while you're both teenagers is not something that should cause your entire remaining life to be ruined, and yet that's precisely what these lists do.
The laws differ per state on what is and isn't a sex offense, but for most of all the states in this country, as well as those of various other countries such as the U.K., they are far too aggressive and cause a lot more harm than they aim to protect against. A 17-year old girl giving her 15-year old boyfriend a blowjob does not deserve to be the target of vandalism, harassment and worse for the rest of her life. These laws need serious adjusting and these lists need re-evaluation.
Imagine, for instance, what would happen if the states would start publishing lists of people who committed other, more serious crimes? People who have committed murder, major fraud, or what have you. There should be no doubt in your mind that these people will end up being hunted down, and for what? Crimes they may have committed many years ago, for which they have paid the price already (otherwise they wouldn't be registered), and yet their mere existence now leads other people to engage in criminal behavior just by the presence of these kind of lists.
People are difficult to manage on a large scale; there is traditionally little room for forgiveness within a person, yet all the more eagerness to vindicate. Lists like the Sex Offenders registries cause far more harm than they do any good; they are an ill-fated good intention, sadly backfiring repeatedly in a society that cares more to penalize than to understand. The longer we refuse to take a moment and try to understand, the more dangerous we ourselves become.
And apps like the iPhone Sex Offenders app do absolutely nothing to help make the world a better place.
* The iPhone app has since been pulled from the AppStore for violating California laws and regulations (selling personal identification information of other people). With some luck, it'll stay off.
Originally written for KuraFire.tumblr.com.