CJI speaker examines America’s obsession with tracking sex offenders

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A generation ago, few Americans would have supported registration and “marking” of sex offenders who had served their time and paid their debt to society.  In today’s world, however, the tracking of sex offenders is no longer seen as un-American or neo-Nazi, according to Prof. Wayne A. Logan of Florida State University College. 

Logan visited the Law Center as part of the “Criminal Law at the Cutting Edge” lecture series sponsored by the Criminal Justice Institute.  He outlined how every state now operates a system of mandatory registration and notification, and noted how the nationwide obsession with tracking sex offenders represents “a really remarkable public policy story.”  The story is made all the more remarkable because there is no empirical evidence that the system does any good.  “We live in a very scared society,” he said, “and a very unforgiving society.”

Some 700,000 sex offenders are registered in the United States, but the actual number is much higher as many sex crimes are never reported and offenders find easy ways to skirt the registration law, Logan said. While listing names and addresses of offenders on the Internet may make the neighborhood more alert to the convicted sex offender down the street, Logan noted how the system focuses on “strangers” – and does nothing to protect loved ones from relatives or trusted family acquaintances who commit most of the offenses.  As the father of two young daughters, Logan admits he frequently scans the offenders list on the Internet.  At the same time, he said he is “very aware that potential abusers could be someone I know and trust.”

Prof. Wayne A. Logan of Florida State University CollegeThe history of registering criminal offenders and alerting the community to their whereabouts is not new, according to Logan.  The practice traces back at least to France, Germany and England in the 19th Century and, he said, “derives from a human desire to know what’s going on around us.” In the United States, a registry of freed slaves was kept in the 19th Century, and in the 1930s, California kept a registry of known gangsters who were migrating from the East Coast.  Other states followed suit – and the move toward public registries gained impetus in the 1980s after a number of child abductions, including the kidnapping and death of Adam Walsh whose father, John, became a television crime crusader. In 1994, the federal government waded in with the so-called Megan’s Law, which requires states to adopt a registration system.  To ensure compliance with the registration requirements, the government employed a “carrot and stick” approach of awarding and withholding federal criminal justice funds from states. In 2006, President Bush mandated certain additional requirements, including adding juveniles to the registry and making it retroactive, when he signed into law the Adam Walsh Act.  The law is seen in some quarters as a states’ rights issue, Logan said, and 18 states have refused to adopt the measure. He predicted legislatures will be debating the matter as the act comes up again in July.

Logan raised the question: What accounts for the remarkable turnaround from 1986, when just a handful of states had a registration system?  Logan conjectured that a “notion of moral panic” swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s as a rash of high-profile child disappearances refocused debate on the issue. Missing children’s pictures began appearing on milk cartons; several child protection bills made their way through Congress; and Walsh launched America’s Most Wanted on television. “Shame sanctions” became popular in the courts, gaining a national reputation for Harris County judge (now Congressman) Ted Poe, who employed unique attention-getting sentences. Harsher terms, chain gangs and civil commitments for sex offenders “provided fertile ground for registration and community notification to take root,” Logan said. The politics of criminal justice also witnessed a trend toward personalization and demonization. The previously unusual practice of naming laws after victims – Megan’s Law and Jessica’s Law, for example – made it much more personal and compelling, Logan said. If a legislator opposed a bill, he or she appeared anti-victim or “anti-law-and-order.”  Defendants were demonized in legislative halls, courts and the press as “monsters,” “animals,” and “predators.” The public developed “a sense of information entitlement on sex offenders,” Logan said, “with any concerns of privacy or other rights trumped by the right to know.” In recent times, courts have shown little concern for the offenders who are governed by these laws; in fact, Logan noted how the net has been cast wider as more and more categories of offenders are being added. “If everyone is classified, then classifications are meaningless,” he said, adding that it raises the risk of the public becoming inured to the threat. “It is corrections on the cheap,” he said. The government puts everything on the Internet and says, “It’s up to you to self-protect.”

Logan said the effort to narrow the scope of registries could gather steam in the years ahead.  But he predicts the system will remain and may actually strengthen. “We’re not going to see an unwinding of these laws,” he declared.  Reaction to sex offenders is psychologically very visceral – “much more so than any other crime, even murder,” Logan noted.  It may take a horrible act perpetrated by “community vigilantes” to prompt a change, he added. “Tragically, what’s on the line is our own personal safety, and that of our loved ones.”

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