Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Problem With Sex Offender Registries

As a teenager, Ricky Blackman carried an Oklahoma driver's license with the words "sex offender" stamped in red below his picture.

His crime? Having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 16. The offense occurred when he lived in Iowa, and the label followed him to Oklahoma.

As a Tier 3 offender on Oklahoma's sex offender registry, Blackman could not attend high school, visit the town library, or go to his younger brother's football games.

But the label did more than limit where Blackman could go. It transformed him from an outgoing, sociable jock into an introvert who has trouble trusting people, his mother says.


The case of Mr. Blackman is far from typical. It represents some of the worst in policy making - an overreaction to an issue that ends up being counterproductive. While problems with sex offender registries have been well documented,  change has been slow in coming. Few elected officials want to be tagged with being soft on crime no matter how ineffective or counterproductive a crime control policy is.

Registries cost money, they drive offenders underground (making enforcement difficult and inconsistent), and may create a false sense of security. As in the case of Mr. Blackman, sex offenders are frequently the target of community wrath.

An additional problem is the breadth of the label "sex offender." Most individuals who fall into this category are situational offenders - having underage, but consensual sex. But by labeling everyone a sex offender, the ability to monitor adequately truly dangerous offenders is greatly diminished.

Legislatures need to revise these policies if the goal is to improve public safety. Until then, the Scarlet Letter effect does more harm than good.

1 comment:

Susan Klopfer said...

Legislators know what they need to do, but they've made this so political it will never change. We can at least keep reminding them.