Overreach on sex offenders makes Americans’ lives living hell
Around two years ago, six ICE agents entered the home of a 20-year-old man named Adam while he was sleeping. They put a gun to his head and informed him they had a warrant to search his premises for child pornography.
Adam is a musician and was a frequent user of the peer-to-peer file-sharing website Limewire, which he used to download and share music videos. The search of his computer hard drive yielded 2,331 videos, most of which were music and a small portion of which were adult porn. Two suspect child porn videos featuring girls aged 16-17, and another video apparently featuring a three year-old, had been downloaded and deleted.
Adam claims that the downloads were accidental, and that although he occasionally indulged in adult porn (like many men his age), he has no interest in child pornography (CP), never sought it out and deleted the downloaded items as soon as he realized what they were. The fact that the forensic evidence showed that the items were never viewed and that there was no record of any keyword searches that would indicate he was looking for CP would seem to back up that claim.
But it didn’t matter: Adam was charged with possession of child pornography, and was warned by the prosecutor that if he did not plead guilty, the charge would be upgraded to distribution (as a file-sharing site, Limewire is an automatic distribution tool), so he would then be looking at 15-25 years in a federal penitentiary. Seeing no way out, he took a guilty plea, was sentenced to 30 months in prison, 15 years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
As a native of the state of Florida, when Adam is eventually released from prison, he will be subjected to among the most severe registration rules in the country. He will be required to register every time he moves. Failure to register or violation of any of the terms of his probation (attending a family function where children are present, for example, or visiting a friend who has a child) will result in an automatic return to prison for an indefinite period. His voting rights may never be restored. His chances of finding meaningful work, or any kind of work, are slim at best. And it will be next to impossible for him to find a decent place to live.
Residency laws for sex offenders are so restrictive that in many jurisdictions, they cannot live within 2,500 feet of any church, school, daycare center, playground or bus stop. These restrictions have effectively eliminated any eligible housing for sex offenders in many urban areas and, as evidenced in this documentary, have forced hundreds of men to live like lepers in tent dwellings in the Florida swamps, with no running water or electricity.
Sex offender registries date back to the 1940s but they did not become mandatory in all states until the 1990s, when Congress began passing a series of laws such as the Jacob Wetterling Act (1994), Megan’s Law (1996) and the Adam Walsh Act (2006) – all named for children who had been abducted, molested or killed. The registry was intended to prevent other children from falling victim to a similar fate, a desire shared by everyone. But the laws have so drastically expanded what qualifies as a sex offense, there are now over 700,000 Americans on the registry (pdf), many of whom have never harmed a child and are unlikely to ever harm a child, rendering it a self-defeating tool.
In some states, for instance, public urination is enough to get you on the registry, as is mooning, streaking, flashing or visiting a prostitute. A 19-year-old boy who has consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend can be charged with statutory rape; a teenage girl who posts naked pictures of herself on any kind of file-sharing site can be charged as a distributor of child pornography. Anyone who accesses the wrong kind of porn, accidentally or otherwise, as Adam did, will also be branded with the sex offender label. In at least 17 states, that label is for life.
None of these categories of offenders is likely to harm a child. Studies have found that only 1% of men convicted of viewing child pornography have gone on to commit a hands-on sex offense, yet they are among the most severely punished group of offenders.
The money, time, effort and manpower required to keep such broad categories of offenders (and so-called offenders) under surveillance is money, time, effort and manpower that is being diverted from monitoring those who pose a genuine threat. The argument, of course, is that when it comes to protecting children, you cannot take any chances. But there are sophisticated risk assessment tools available, and in use, that are far more effective means of identifying danger than making hundreds of thousands of people’s lives unliveable.
It’s easier, though, and politically more palatable, to declare zero tolerance for sex offenders and to keep passing laws that look good on the books. Never mind if they are actually counter-productive when it comes to actually keeping children safe.
Sad man via Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock