bluecommonwealth.com : Sex offenders -- Virginia's new lepers?.
Virginia, like every state in the nation, has a Sex Offender Registry. They are for all intents and purposes mandated; federal law provides that you have to have a Sex Offender Registry if you are going to qualify for certain federal funds.
In recent years, legislators have delighted in coming up with new, more onerous requirements for those on the Sex Offender Registry. The two bills that are just the most ridiculous extension of this "kick them in the teeth" mentality are Delegate Vivian Watts' HB 1898, which would require sex offenders to tell the State Police about any telephone that they use or intend to use, and Lynwood Lewis' HB 1928, which in its original form would have required any sex offender using a computer to tell the State Police within 30 minutes of sign-on the IP address of the computer that they are using. That provision was stripped out in the House Courts of Justice Committee; now it just requires that a sex offender go to the State Police to get a new picture taken within 3 days of a "significant" change in appearance, whatever that means.
There are four problems with these additional conditions (and the additional conditions added in the past 15 years):
* 1. The Sex Offender Registry includes about 10 times more people than really conceivably pose a threat to reoffend.
* 2. They cost the State millions of dollars, trying to keep tabs on those 90% who pose no risk to reoffend.
* 3. They may do more harm than good.
* 4. The more restrictions you pile on, the more your system begins to look like permanent probation, which would violate a whole bunch of state and U.S. Constitutional provisions.
1. In Virginia, because we cast have cast the net so wide, most of the people whom the State Police are spending millions of dollars to keep track of are in fact no danger. Some of them have been certified as basically not likely to reoffend by certified, state-approved psychologists who specialize in sexual deviancy. But the State Police have to go around and knock on doors to find out if the sex offender is really living where he says he is living, and to take the phone calls and notifications when a sex offender signs on to an IM chat. They don't like it, and some State Police officers have told me that they feel strongly that it is taking them away from real criminal enforcement. If you wonder why there aren't more State Police officers on rural highways, they are spending their time tracking down sex offenders, most of whom pose little if any danger to society. In Oklahoma, one Oklahoma State Police representative told a legislative hearing that 90% of the people on the list pose no danger to society. Experts in the field will tell you that there are a few offenders out there who pose serious threats to children, and they are usually identifiable. Recidivism rates for sex offenders are actually lower than for non-sex offenders. See the DOJ study -- http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rsorp94.pdf 68% of the non-sex-offenders who were released in 1994 committed new crimes within the next 3 years, compared to 43% of the sex offenders. In fact, only 5.3% of the sex offenders released from prison in 1994, according to the study, were arrested for a new sex crime; about 3.5% were convicted of a new sex crime. About 1.5% of the non-sex-offenders committed a sex crime during the three-year period that the researchers were looking at.
2. All of this supervision is costing us a lot money. In every State Police office in the state, at least one (and often more) Trooper is doing nothing but administering the program of notifications and verifications. They have lassoed local law enforcement to help as well. It is really hard to figure out the costs since it seems to involve diverting people from other activities that were not themselves separately funded, but one budget document put the figure for the 2008 fiscal year at over $4.5 million, and that's just in the State Police budget.
3. It may do more harm than good. Human Rights Watch did a detailed study of the literature on such programs, and concluded:
Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good:
• The registration laws are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk;
• Under community notification laws, anyone anywhere can access online sex offender registries for purposes that may have nothing to do with public safety. Harassment of and violence against registrants have been the predictable result;
• In many cases, residency restrictions have the effect of banishing registrants from entire urban areas and forcing them to live far from their homes and families.
The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them.
4. It's turned into lifetime probation. The state and federal courts have consistently held that there is no problem with the constitutionality of a Sex Offender Registry; the person who was convicted gives up his or her right to privacy. So there are plenty of cases out there that have said that the bare fact of the Registry is not a problem. But when the General Assembly starts adding conditions -- thou shalt do this, thou shalt not do that -- at some point it becomes like a legislatively imposed probation, which is unconstitutional because it invades the province of the judiciary. In many cases, the new requirements have been added years after the sex offender has finished his probation, which is unconstitutional as an ex post facto law. And because the law imposes these burdens on people without any serious regard to the real societal need for the burdens, it may violate the Due Process Clause as well.
I am convinced that if the courts were ever to look carefully at what has been happening, they would strike down anything other than the fact of the Registry itself. Once the person is past his or her court-imposed probation, no one can impose additional requirements. No registration requirements, no reporting IP addresses, no nothing. The key is that if the legislature were to make it less onerous, it would seem less like probation and would be more palatable Constitutionally.