Sex offender registries are overly broad

Sex offender registries are overly broad

My wife recently consulted our state’s online sex-offender registry before sending our daughter to a kid’s birthday party, to see if offenders were in the vicinity. But doing so proved useless, because so many people are listed on the registry who don’t need to be, because they are not an imminent danger to anyone.

This is apparently a common flaw in sex-offender registries. As lawyer Scott Hechinger notes, sex-offender registries are “overbroad.” People think of them as covering rapists and child molesters. But “look closer at who’s labeled” as a sex-offender and “required to register.” In “5 states: Visiting a prostitute; 13 states: Urinating in public; 32 states: Flashers/Streakers; 39 states: Consensual sex between teens.”

Examples include the 9-year old who played doctor with a 6-year old; a ten-year-old guilty of “indecency” for a playground incident; and a man who violated the law by having sex with his girlfriend as a teen and now is married to that girlfriend and has children with her.

The ten-year-old convicted of the playground indecent-exposure incident later “ended up on streets, repeatedly arrested & convicted for failing to register with suitable address.”

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As another lawyer notes, people on registries include “the 18 year old with the 17-year-old girlfriend who sent him a boob picture,” even though they could legally have sex. (Such “sexting” among minors is banned under certain statutes, even when the sender and recipient are over the age of consent for actually having sex with each other. Moreover, there is apparently no mistake-of-age defense for those who possess such pictures).

So many people are listed on the sex-offender registry as living just in my community that they are too numerous to remember, much less identify and stay away from. One can’t readily narrow the list down to the most serious offenders, because it is hard to figure out precisely what act most of them committed. The registry does mention the code section of state law they violated, but acts of widely differing seriousness can be encompassed in a single code section.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at [email protected]


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