Have Sex Offender Laws Gone Too Far?

Mar 5, 2023 | Justice, Social Policy


It is undeniable that sexual violence is far too prevalent within the United States. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that one in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual violence. Unfortunately, current policies surrounding sex crimes have been proven to be ineffective and insufficient, yet lawmakers continue to simply strengthen penalties for being listed on sex offender registries, rather than following evidence-based recommendations. Approximately 767,023 people are listed on state sex offender registries, as of April 2022. Federal sex offender registration policies prevent rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society. Rather than simply expanding the registries, evidence-based reforms focused on intervention and treatment methods are necessary to reduce sexual violence in the United States.

Sex offender legislation is a relatively new policy area in the United States. In 1947, the state of California passed a bill requiring sex offenders to register with local law enforcement. However, it was not until 1994 that the federal government adopted this policy nationwide with the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offenders Act. Modeled after the California law, the Jacob Wetterling Act came to fruition following three highly publicized sexual homicides cases of children. The level of public hysteria and outrage over these children’s deaths pushed lawmakers to act quickly to address concerns about sex crimes. The Wetterling Act required states to create registries to track offenders convicted of sexually violent crimes or crimes against children and annually verify their addresses for at least ten years after being released from prison. 

A subsequent federal effort to curb sexual violence came 12 years later. In 2006, on the 25th anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of 6 year old Adam Walsh, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Child Safety Act into law. The Jacob Wetterling Act was built upon to establish more comprehensive requirements to register offenders and to organize offenders into three tiers, according to the severity of the crime committed. Under the new Adam Walsh Act, Tier 1 offenders must update their address every year for 15 years and Tier 2 offenders every six months for 25 years. Tier 3 is the most serious level and offenders must update their location every three months for the rest of their lives. 

Title 1 of the Adam Walsh bill created the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which aims to expand the National Sex Offender Registry and streamline the system for monitoring offenders following their release. It allows local and federal authorities, along with the public, to have access to the offender’s name, current location, offense history, where they work or go to school, their license plate number, as well as other types of personal information. It also became a federal crime for an offender to fail to register or update their registration. 

As exemplified by these two sex crime bills, following a highly publicized and emotionally charged case, legislators rush to draft and pass bills to garner public support. An interview with state level policymakers revealed that 65% of the legislators “linked their state’s need for sex offender laws to a specific victimization,” usually stories involving young, white children. Essentially, the lawmakers believed that the vast majority of constituents would view policies centered around sex abuse as a necessary method of protecting their families and communities, and, therefore, support the representative in voting for them. These are referred to as “feel good” policies. However, in an effort to utilize public outrage and pass a popular bill, legislators often do not follow empirical evidence to create these bills. 

The issues with these expedited federal sex offender policies focus on the lack of nationwide standards and the misconceptions regarding sex offenders as a whole. Each state differs in their legal definitions of sex offenses and what qualifies as a sex offender registration requirement. There is no single, comprehensive definition of what acts constitute sex crimes. For example, California, Arizona, and Georgia have labeled public urination as a crime that would require registration as a sex offender, while others have not. Certain states also consider consensual sex between teenagers as a sex crime requiring registration. Sex offender policies tend to be too broad and may target less serious offenders more often than necessary, leading to law enforcement becoming overburdened with too many individuals to monitor.

In creating sex offender laws, policymakers are often working from a skewed understanding of the reality of sex based crimes. For instance, a widespread misconception is that strangers are the greatest threat of sexual violence. However, women and children are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they already know, such as a family member, friend, or acquaintance. In eight out of ten rape cases, the victim personally knew their attacker, and almost all new sex offenses are committed by those not on the registry. 

Despite good intentions, SORNA has not had the anticipated level of success as expected by policymakers. The social implications and unintended consequences stemming from sex offender registration policies have caused more harm than good. The registry has been shown to negatively impact personal and social networks of offenders, leading to further stigmatization and psychological stress. This becomes a problem as the lack of social support can increase the risk of continued criminal behavior and sexual recidivism. This unfortunate cycle results in higher levels of unemployment and homelessness amongst these individuals once they are released from prison. Additionally, many states’ sex offender policies have residence restrictions, limiting the offender’s ability to obtain housing, employment, and stability prior to serving their prison sentence.

The sex offender registry currently operates under the assumption that a convicted sex offender cannot be rehabilitated and needs to be under constant surveillance to ensure that another sexual crime does not occur. However, therapeutic interventions have largely led to success, especially amongst sexually deviant youths. Studies have shown that only 5% of youths that have engaged in “sexually harmful behavior” continue to become adult sex offenders. It is important to note that this data could be impacted by the vast number of unreported sexual assaults, but it is still significant to understand the benefit of therapy methods on minors. 

For adult sex offenders, it is necessary first to conduct an assessment of their recidivism risk level to determine if therapy will make a meaningful difference. This can include an analysis of an offender’s history of mental disorders, whether they committed any sexual abuse during their childhood, their level of instability, their support systems, as well as other clinical risk factors. Some sex offenders are a serious public safety risk and cannot be rehabilitated through therapy. However, many offenders do respond positively to therapy practices, helping to reduce the number of acts of sexual violence committed in the future. A study that followed convicted rapists and other sex offenders for three years revealed that sex offenders were rearrested less often than those convicted of non-sex related crimes. 

In order to address the issues that have been raised with the current sex offender registration system, evidence-based reforms need to be adopted at the federal level. The federal sex offender registration mandate for sexually deviant youths has to be removed and the registries should be withdrawn from public view. Children as young as 14 should not be labeled as sex offenders for the rest of their lives, especially when evidence shows that the likelihood of them becoming adult sex offenders is significantly minimal. 

Federal policies should be focused on rehabilitation, rather than fear and punishment. Convicted sex offenders need to be accurately categorized by risk level, and only those that pose a significant public safety threat should be required to join the registry, in order to ensure that our limited resources are used efficiently. Rather than lifetime supervision requirements for those on the registry, a system of ongoing progress assessments should be established to support rehabilitation.

The Jacob Wetterling and Adam Walsh Acts were based on public outrage and misconceptions following tragic events, they are not based on empirical evidence. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for handling sex based crimes, therefore, the sex offender registry should be treated as one piece of the holistic system required to effectively address sex offender management and prevention. Our justice system needs to move away from simply doling out punishment to prioritizing rehabilitation services to ensure future crimes are not committed. Sex offenders are not a homogenous group and to effectively reduce these acts of violence, policies need to take this into consideration, and prioritize facts over fear.


  • Madelyn Amos

    Madelyn Amos is a first year Master of Public Administration student with interests in environmental policy, grassroots advocacy, and gender politics. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 with a double major in Public Policy and Gender Studies. She previously worked for the Democratic Party of Illinois as a campaign manager and oppositional researcher in Chicago and currently works for the Feminist Majority, advocating for reproductive justice. In her free time, Madelyn enjoys yoga, reading, and searching for the best Thai food in DC.

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