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A Case for Limiting the Reach of Sex Offender Registries

July 19, 2012

Criticism of overly-harsh sex offender registry laws has been echoed in the halls of state legislatures across the country.

Individuals classified as sex offenders and members of their families have pleaded with lawmakers to recognize the flaws in the current statutes that severely limit the day-to-day lives of those on the registry for no good reason. Still, only a handful of states, including Georgia, have responded to these complaints by revamping their sex offender registry statutes. Even though the conversation is growing and more states are considering the impact of the harsh laws currently in place, many states have continued to come down hard on those labeled as sex offenders under their statutes.

One of the major complaints of many current sex offender registry statutes are the blanket effect they have on all who are placed on a registry, regardless of the severity or dangerousness of their crimes. An individual convicted of public urination often has the same limits set on where he can live and work as someone convicted of a violent sexual assault. This across-the-board treatment is especially problematic when one considers the extreme nature of some of the limits imposed on labeled sex offenders. They may face public harassment and embarrassment if friends or neighbors stumble across their names on a sex offender search of their neighborhood.  They encounter repeated housing application rejections. Additionally, in a practical sense—an angle that should be important to many states as they struggle to overcome a sagging economy—registered sex offenders have an increasingly difficult time securing employment. Many highly qualified individuals are surely turned away from positions, forcing them to turn to the state for unemployment support.

There are multiple advantages to more narrowly-tailored sex offense laws. Limiting the number of people on sex offender registries helps law enforcement agencies better funnel their resources into safeguarding the community from the most threatening individuals. As many laws currently stand, police forces are economically crippled by trying to monitor every single individual on their state’s sex offender registry. The current registry system in many states is also completely unhelpful to ordinary citizens who wish to avoid potentially dangerous individuals. When violent and non-violent offenses alike are lumped together on one registry, there is no way for concerned citizens to arm themselves with the most pertinent information about the offenders. Most importantly, limiting those placed onto a sex offender registry enables those convicted of minor offenses who pose no threat to the community to move on with their lives and once again begin to contribute to society in a positive way.

Despite these legitimate concerns, many states have still chosen to expand, rather than narrow, their sex offender registry’s reach. The Louisiana House passed a bill in April that bans sex offenders convicted of computer-related offenses from using social networking sites. Arkansas’s parole board is considering prohibiting sex offenders on its state’s registry from accessing the Internet altogether. New York is attempting to get sex offenders’ online gaming accounts deleted. Often, states will cite efforts to be “tough on crime” and “protect our children” when designing these harsher laws. With political pressures weighing on many lawmakers, changes to sex offender registry laws may only come as calls for reform continue to pour in from multiple voices in the community.

Although changes to Georgia’s sex offender registry statute came on the heels of multiple lawsuits that successfully challenged the constitutionality of the statute, the revamped statute means hundreds of individuals previously branded “sex offenders” can be removed from the list. Now, many individuals on Georgia’s sex offender registry may petition a Superior Court to be removed from the registry if their sentence has been completed.

With Georgia’s statute enumerating real solutions to the problems created by over-reaching sex offender registries, hopefully states across the country will follow suit. As Congress considers the Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act this month, which includes the stringent federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, states may be forced to choose between loosening their laws and receiving federal funds. Even with this loss, one can only hope that many states will follow Georgia’s lead and conclude that the cost of complying with harsh sex offender registry laws is just too much to bear for all of its citizens.

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