Sex registries are in the news again thanks to a couple of high-profile child sex abuse cases. (Think multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein and singer R. Kelly.) Keeping track of ex-cons who have sexually preyed on others sounds like a good idea. But do these registries really help keep us safe?
Under a 2006 federal law, each state, the District of Columbia, Native American tribes and U.S. territories are required to set up and update a tracking system with the names of convicted sex offenders.
Each state registry must consist of different tiers of punishment depending on the age of the victim and the severity of the crime. Offenders in each tier must periodically check in with law enforcement to ensure they stay on the straight and narrow. Tier 1 offenders can get themselves removed from the registry after 10 years if they have regularly reported in and stayed out of trouble. Tier 2 offenders report in more frequently and remain on the registry for 25 years. Tier 3 registrants are on the sex registry for life. Failure to follow these rules can result in up to 10 more years in prison.
General information about the offenders and their crimes is easily available online for the public to read. This can be especially useful for those active on the dating scene and parents of young children who want to know more about the new neighbor.
But, it is important to understand that many registries are bloated with names that probably shouldn’t be there.
Public urination, streaking or sex between consenting teenagers can land a person on the registry. A man involved in a nasty divorce and falsely accused by an ex can find himself locked into years on a registry. Children as young as 8 have been added, sometimes for innocent contact like hugs or kisses. In Colorado, a 15-year-old boy identified as T.B. was found guilty of sexually exploiting children after he sent a nude selfie to two girls, ages 15 and 17, and they reciprocated. TB was required to register as a sex offender for at least 20 years. That law has now been changed, so teenage sexting is no longer a felony, but it’s too late for T.B. His educational and vocational life has been stunted by his foolish teenage act.
Another problem? There is no uniformity to these registries. Some states have stringent rules about where an ex-offender can live and work. Someone who sexually abuses children, for example, will likely be prohibited from residing with a relative who has kids; living near a school or playground; and attending a church where children worship. In some states, each routine check-in is followed by officers blanketing the offender’s neighborhood with flyers that show their photo, address and car license plate number, as well as the age of their victim. On Halloween, some states require the convicted to post a sign in their window warning children not to knock.
But some states may impose no restrictions on ex-con sex offenders aside from requiring these routine check-ins. These state-by-state differences mean crafty, habitual predators can game the system by simply moving to a more tolerant location.
The uber-wealthy Epstein, for example, originally registered as a Tier 3 offender in two states where he had homes, Florida and New York. But when he was ordered to report to Manhattan authorities every 90 days, he deftly changed his primary residence from New York to his home in the Virgin Islands, where there was no supervision. He reportedly frequented his 7,500-acre ranch in Stanley, New Mexico, for the same reason.
R. Kelly, on the other hand, was never required to sign up for a sex registry even though allegations that he engaged in sex with girls as young as 12 have dogged him for decades. His 2008 trial for charges that he produced video child porn with a young girl was delayed by defense lawyers for six years and ultimately ended in acquittal. This past February, more than a decade after he dodged prosecution, Kelly was indicted in Chicago on 10 counts of sex abuse of four victims. He was out on bail when the feds swooped in last week with a 13-count indictment charging the 52-year-old with child sexual exploitation, kidnapping, forced labor and racketeering. He is now in custody.
The point, of course, is that all the sex registries in the world are not going to stop the most prolific sexual predators, the very ones we should focus on. And the rich and famous sex abusers, arguably the most dangerous of all, will always find a loophole to indulge their obsessions. Epstein reportedly continued to abuse young teen girls while he served jail time; his highly unusual 12-hour work release from prison allowed him to go home to his Florida mansion each day.
It is way past time for authorities to take a second look at these registries, cull the names of those who truly pose no danger to society and crack down on those obvious predators (and their slick lawyers) who are determined to beat the system.