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For more than 20 years, states have been keeping public lists of convicted sex offenders. These registries are intended to help police and communities monitor the whereabouts of nearly 800,000 pedophiles and others found guilty of sexual crimes. Many people are listed for crimes committed when they were minors and not all are egregious: Sending a lewd text or public urination, for instance, can lead to sex offense charges. We look at sex offense registries, the restrictions for those on the lists and the protections these restrictions can offer communities.
- Abbe Smith Professor of law and co-director of the Criminal Justice Clinic and E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship program at Georgetown University; author of "Case of a Lifetime."
- Jill Levenson Associate professor, social work, Barry University, and clinical social worker.
- Brenda V. Jones Executive director, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc.
- Victor Vieth Founder and senior director, Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Sex offender registries are designed to help protect the public from pedophiles and others convicted of sexual crimes. The registries warn potential employers, landlords and others about a possible sexual predator in their midst. But some say there are far too many people on these lists who don't belong there.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about sex offender registries and the purpose they serve, Abbe Smith of Georgetown University, Brenda V. Jones of Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. By phone from Miami Shores, Florida, Jill Levenson of Barry University. She's a clinical social worker. And by phone from Winona, Minnesota, Victor Vieth of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.
MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure many of you will want to weigh in. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for joining us.
MS. ABBE SMITHThanks so much for having me.
MS. BRENDA JONESThank you.
MR. VICTOR VIETHThank you.
MS. JILL LEVENSONThank you.
REHMAbbe Smith, I'm going to start with you. Last weekend, there was an article about a 19-year-old young man whose name had been added to the Indiana state registry of sex offenders. That article was in the New York Times. Give us the gist of his story.
SMITHWill do. So this is not an unusual story. What's unusual is that it landed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. It illustrates that we've gone overboard on sex offender laws. So, in brief, a 19-year-old young man named Zachery Anderson is living with his parents in a small town in Indiana and going to community college. He dates online, like many young people do these days, and he meets a 14-year-old girl who says she's 17.
SMITHThey correspond for a while. He decides to meet her. She's more than willing to meet with him. He drives a few miles over the border to Michigan, meets her and they have sex. He's subsequently charged with fourth degree criminal sexual conduct. He receives a 90-day jail sentence and probation. He's an Indiana resident and as such, he's going to be on the sex offender registry for life.
SMITHThis notwithstanding the fact that the girl, the young woman with whom he had sex, and the girl's mother appeared in federal court and begged for leniency. Two things are worth mentioning. First, the prosecutor, apparently, did not oppose a youthful offender type sentence that would've kept the young man off the sex offender registry, but that same prosecutor also made a charging decision to charge the young man with an offense that could subject him to the registration.
SMITHThat, in my view, was a really bad, misguided decision and it's a problem with having these laws on the books. When they're on the books, they're going to be relied upon in a prosecution. The prosecutor also made some sort of extraneous comments that were at odds with his initial position that this could be a youthful, you know, offender type situation by suggesting that there's something wrong with what my son would call hookup culture these days.
SMITHThe judge weighing in in a way that really sounds like, you know, the Scopes trial comes to mind, was harshly punitive in his approach to this young man about sex and about having sex when you don't know somebody and then saying goodbye and sentenced him accordingly.
REHMIndeed. Abbe Smith is professor of law, co-director of the criminal justice clinic at Georgetown University. Brenda Jones, I gather that this particular story hits home to you. Tell us why.
JONESWell, it definitely hits home to me because in my advocacy work and in my personal life, of course, I know many, many stories much like Zach's and Zach, I think, is just a shining example of the problems with sex offender registries and the problems -- the confusion that we have, the fact that sex offenders are not the people that we think they are, that the bulk of people that are currently on the registries do not fit that stereotype of pedophiles and predators that we think are supposed to be on that registry. Most are not.
JONESThat the registry itself, as the parents have pointed out, is a punishment that goes way beyond what is ordered by the court and that's -- the court-ordered sentence. And finally, that the registry's also completely ineffective at doing the very thing that you pointed out at the beginning, Diane, that the idea was supposed to be that it's supposed to help us protect children from sexual assault and yet, there's absolutely no research that shows that anybody is being protected by sex offender registries.
REHMBrenda V. Jones is executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. And to you, Jill Levenson, give us a little of the background of these state sex offender registries. When did they begin and why?
LEVENSONSex offender registries in their contemporary form began in 1994. So in 1989 in Minnesota, a boy named Jacob Wetterling disappeared. He was riding his bike with his brother and a friend and Jacob was abducted and to this day, has not been found. And it was a terrible tragic crime. And it became known during the investigation that there was some sort of halfway house of criminals living nearby and Jacob's parents began to ask, well, maybe if we knew where people who had been previously convicted of sexual crimes were living, that would've given us some kind of lead in the investigation or identify -- being able to identify suspects.
LEVENSONSo the U.S. Congress passed a national sex offender registry law in 1994, which basically just required each state to create a registry so that law enforcement could track the whereabouts of anyone convicted of a sexual crime. In 1996, that law was amended to become what many people know as Megan's Law and it allowed that sex offender registration information to be made publically available to citizens, to everyone.
LEVENSONAnd then, the law was amended again in 2006. It's now called the Adam Walsh Act and that was designed to create better standardization across the 50 states and it also expanded registration durations and actually, only 17 states comply with the Adam Walsh Act, but it extended sex offender registration durations to 25 years or life.
REHMWow. Jill Levenson, she's associate professor of social work at Barry University. She is a clinical social worker. Victor Vieth, as founder and director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, what's your view about the need to reform these registries.
VIETHA couple of points. I want to push back a little on what I've heard so far. First of all, with respect to a 19-year-old sexually penetrating a 14-year-old, that's a significant age difference and there's a large body of research documenting the potential medical and mental health consequences to a child who's sexually violated in that way. Children of age just can't meaningfully consent. There's a lot of things we do when we're adolescents or teens that we look back on as adults and deeply regret.
VIETHThat's why we have statutory rape laws. Now, having said that, should this 19-year-old be on the registry or not, perhaps not. But there's a lot of factors that we'd want to look at. Was this really the first time that he was pursuing a hookup with a child? Every offender, when they get caught, in my experience, says, oh, this is my first time and yet that would just defy logic.
VIETHUsually, what they mean is it's the first time they got caught. That's one question. Second question is, he says in the New York Times report, or his lawyers say, is that she represented she was 17. What, if anything, did he do to really verify that? That could help sort out what level of predator he really was or was not. I'd love to look at what the actual exchange of emails were. Was it really about dating or was it about something else?
VIETHAnd most importantly, I don’t see anything on the New York Times article as to a sex offender assessment to determine whether or not he really is a risk to the public. If all those things came back that positive, perhaps he's not appropriate for the registry. I also want to push back on the argument that there's absolutely no research to support the registry. That's just not true. There's a number of studies that suggest there may be an impact on recidivism, that it may positively impact the public in engaging in preventative initiatives.
VIETHThree-quarters of sex offenders in some studies say that it has a deterrent effect on them. Now, there are limitations, significant limitations, to this research and we can talk about that and talk about where we should go in terms of better research, but it's misleading to say there's absolutely no support for the registry. Now, in answer to your direct question, where should we go in terms of reform? I think we should start with the juvenile system. I think there's a large consensus among criminal justice professionals to reform how we respond to juvenile sex offenders.
VIETHThere's 200 peer-reviewed studies that can really help us sort through which kids are at high risk to reoffend, which kids are not. I think there is good research. Jill and others have done that, documenting that the registry, as applied to juveniles, is actually increasing the risk for recidivism. I would focus on that.
REHMOkay. And we've got to take a short break here. The one thing I would point out is that the young woman did testify that she told the young man she was 17 years old. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about sex offender registries. And as one of our listeners points out, he says, "Having worked in Florida as a sex crimes prosecutor, I find this conversation unhelpful." He says, "There is not one set of laws on the books that governs sex offender registration. All states do not have the same laws. And the federal government also has different laws." True enough, Abbe Smith?
SMITHYes, that's true. There's a fair amount of variation among the states and in the federal government. I'm not sure why the conversation's not helpful. It's absolutely true that it's not uniform. There are some offenses that will lead to lifetime registration. Other offenses will lead to 10 years' registration. But I want to respond to the suggestion that there was a traumatized 14-year-old girl here. I think we jump too quickly to the stereotype of the vulnerable, you know, misused, exploited child. We don't know. And that's really -- that's not the factual record here. The record here is that the girl went to court and said, "Do not punish him harshly." She said she was 17. She sounds like she was a willing participant.
SMITHHow do, you know, we don't know. It could be that she's the much more experienced person in terms of her sexuality. And maybe the 19-year-old is not so experienced.
REHMWe don't know.
SMITHHe could be a young 19-year-old.
VIETHDiane, can I respond to that?
VIETHYou're -- I agree. Every victim is different. We have to take that into account and how it's going to impact them long term. We really don't know until she grows up. What I'm talking about is the vast body of research. They have child experience research studies on 440,000 survivors of trauma and a whole host of other research that tells us it can have a significant impact on a large number of survivors. And I would simply say that those who are defending this young man are engaging in the same sort of thing. We're assuming he's not a predator. We're assuming that this was his first time. We're assuming that it was plausible to believe that she was 17.
VIETHI'm not discounting that. I'm just saying we should have asked some more detailed questions. And, Diane, I heard what you said, that the victim testified that she was 17.
VIETHOkay. All right. That doesn't discount anything that I've said. I think what you're saying is let's put the burden on the victim. Was the victim reasonable in this situation or not?
REHMNo. No. I...
VIETHAnd I'm saying put the burden on the offender. Was his conduct reasonable or not? Did he simply take her at his word or did he do anything logically to determine whether or not that was accurate?
REHMAll right. Brenda Jones.
VIETHAnd I think it was a relevant question.
REHMExcuse me, Victor. Brenda Jones.
JONESYeah, I'd like to comment also that putting the burden on Zachary, in this case, is incorrect. We're talking about a court. And in a court of law, the burden is on the accuser. And in this case, at that point, it is the 14-year-old. We try to put the person who's crying rape on this little pedestal and not allow them to testify. But that is putting an unnecessary burden. You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
JONESAnd in this case, to say that that 14-year-old's not allowed to say anything. Another response I wanted to make had to do -- Victor, you pointed out, for instance, about assessments. There need to be more assessments. In most states, especially when you get to the point of a registry, I think you're use -- you're from Minnesota, is that correct? I mean they have assessments there. But in most states, there is no assessment. The person's convicted of a crime and that crime is just -- okay, that slot goes here. That means they're on a registry for X-period of time. And every state's different. Indiana has lifetime for everybody. Other states have, you know, 10 years or (unintelligible)
REHMAnd so that young 19-year-old man could be on that list forever.
JONESForever. Exactly. In Indiana, it's lifetime. And so no matter what the judge sentences him to, he's going to end up on a register….
REHMJill, you wanted to comment.
SMITHCan I just clarify that it's the government, though, not the accuser that the burden -- the burden's on the government to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
JONESThank you. Thank you for correcting that.
SMITHIt's actually not on the accuser. She's a witness.
REHMJill Levenson, you wanted to comment.
LEVENSONYes. Well, certainly we do have a lot of research suggesting that sexual abuse of children is very damaging for many kids and that it prolongs throughout their life. But that's really a separate question of what do we want registries to do and what are the goals of registry? I'm sure that any of us who are parents could really relate to that New York Times article and shudder to think about our own child, our own 19-year-old being caught up in such a thing. And when we look back on our own lives, who among us would want to be judged and defined forever by the worst thing we ever did as a teen or a young adult. So, you know, part of the question is, what is the goal of registries? And what are some of the problems with them?
LEVENSONSo as you pointed out at the beginning, there are now about 800,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. And because registration durations in most states are now so long -- 25 years or life -- it means there's very little attrition. So that creates some pragmatic issues. One being that it becomes very difficult to then distinguish who's really dangerous and in what way. And certainly, I think, that we could all probably agree that there is a continuum of different kinds of crimes, a continuum of motivations and a lot of different kinds of reasons why people engage in behaviors that rise to the threshold of a sexual crime. I would also point out that the word "sex offender" is a legal term. It's not a diagnosis.
LEVENSONAnd not everybody on sex offender registries meets the criteria for the diagnosis of pedophilia. Another point is that, with these 800,000 registered sex offenders, that also creates a huge burden on resources for law enforcement.
LEVENSONAnd, in addition to the collateral consequences to the registerees and their families. But the burden of resources really is important. Because every dollar that's spent on sex offender registries is also a dollar that's not spent on victim treatment, child protection services and prevention programs for at-risk families.
REHMAll right. And, Abbe, I want to bring up a somewhat tangential issue that is in the news today. We learned that Bill Cosby has acknowledged that in 2005 he sought drugs to give to women so that he could sexually assault them. This was learned by the Associated -- reported by the Associated Press. Is this the kind of crime that should have or could have gotten his name on a sex offense registry then? Or could it now?
SMITHCertainly now. And I don't want to weigh-in on the specific allegations because Bill Cosby hasn't been adjudicated guilty. But suffice to say, a man who drugs women in order to render them incapacitated so that he can sexually assault them is exactly the kind of sexual predator that people had in mind when they enacted laws like these.
LEVENSONI would agree with that.
SMITHAnd those are a very tiny percentage, frankly, of that huge number of people on registries these days, which include public urinators, people who expose themselves, people who touch other people over clothing, you know, drunken encounters, one-off kinds of encounters. I think the laws were meant to get at truly sexually-dangerous predators. And we've gone really far away from that initial inclination.
REHMAnd, Victor Vieth, how do these rules differ? How do they vary from state to state?
VIETHThere are significant differences. So let me just delineate the differences among the juvenile offenders. Eleven states have no registration or requirement for juvenile offenders. Twenty-seven states have mandatory registration if you fit into certain categories. Ten states leave it up to the discretion of the judge and you have to have a hearing and sort through factors related to recidivism. So there's marked differences. There's a huge difference between South Carolina and New York, for example, on who has to or not register as a child or as an adult. So there are huge differences.
REHMAnd, Brenda Jones, tell me about the kinds of job and housing restrictions that people whose names are on these lists experience.
JONESRight. This is something that's a collateral effect of being on the registry. The -- there are restrictions that are obvious, such as, you can't have foster children or you can't run a daycare. I mean, these are understandable. Except for the fact that it -- going back to my earlier statement, that sex offenders are not who you think they are, because the bulk of people that are on registries actually have not harmed a child. So somebody, say, for instance, that had a problem with an adult, why would they need to be restricted against children. But the -- your question had to do with the housing -- the jobs. The problem with the registry, unlike any other crime, is that your name is up front and center, easily searched.
JONESAnd so that Ban the Box thing, it's useless. The person goes online. They can -- they spot a person's name in a particular area. In many states, that location of their job is also recorded on the website. So any person coming into a McDonald's, for instance, is going -- and happens to see that person is going to say, "You've got a sex offender behind the counter and I am not going to ever patronize your establishment again, as long as that creep is behind the counter." That person's not going to be in there the next day. So you deal with that across the board in many, many areas. So it's very, very difficult.
REHMIn many states. And that's how it...
JONESEvery state, yeah.
REHM...differs. Yeah. Jill, you wanted to jump in.
LEVENSONYes. We've done a lot of research on the collateral consequences of sex offender registration. And there are a number of different important restrictions that are tied to the registration status, housing being one of them. Many states, including Florida, have really exceptional housing restrictions, where they -- a registered person can't live within, sometimes, 2,500 feet of a school, park, playground, daycare. That's almost a half mile. And that means that they're -- in densely populated communities, there are very few compliant dwellings for which -- in which to live. It also means that, in many cases, young adults like this 19-year-old would be unable to live with his own parents or with family members because those homes are too close to a child (unintelligible)
REHMAnd isn't that, in fact, Zachery's case?
SMITHYes. The family's going to be moving away from, you know...
SMITH...they have to sell their house.
SMITHCan we talk about juveniles for a second?
SMITHBecause Victor has mentioned them. I'd be interested to hear what Jill has to say. Because juvenile sex offender registration is a very troubling concept. There is a fair amount of research about the capacity of juveniles to change. Sexual experimentation is kind of part of adolescent development. Jill, I'm kind of curious about the research. Maybe you could share that.
LEVENSONRight. Well, absolutely, it's a very, very complex area. Children and teenagers engage in lots of behaviors that they don't always understand the implications or consequences of. Certainly, teenagers and even young adults can engage in behavior that they know technically is unlawful but maybe they don't fully appreciate the harmfulness of. We know, from research, that most juvenile offenders do not actually go on to become adult sexual offenders. Most are quite amenable to rehabilitation and treatment.
LEVENSONAnd that -- and, again, that sort of begs the question on the other side, which is what is the purpose of the registry? Is that purpose to prevent recidivism? And we also have a pretty good consensus of about two dozen studies suggesting that registries are really not all that effective in achieving that goal...
LEVENSON...of preventing recidivism or already known offenders. But in terms of juvenile offenders, most are going to be fairly low risk. There are certainly some exceptions. And most, because of their young age and that their brains are not fully developed, have a lot of room for rehabilitation...
LEVENSON...and should not belong on registries.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Victor, I'm sure there are many people, in your view, who clearly do belong on the list. But what about those whom you feel do not belong on the list?
VIETHOh, I think we're talking about the largest population here of juvenile offenders. I think most prosecutors would support significant reform of registration laws with respect to juveniles. And I think it's much broader than that. And I think Jill and others would agree. We have to dramatically improve the type of treatment we're providing juveniles. Not only are we too harsh with a number of the registration provisions, but we're often applying treatment modalities that are better suited to adult offenders. We really know how to treat juveniles and assess recidivism. And we need to improve our skills in that regard.
VIETHHaving said that, there are some juveniles -- and I could give you accounts everybody would agree with -- should be on a registry. With respect to adult offenders, I agree, if I'm understanding them correctly, the comments on residency. I think the research there is very one sided. The residency restrictions tend to push convicted adult offenders into rural areas, into disadvantaged communities that have fewer resources to manage the population. And we're probably increasing, not decreasing the risk of recidivism. I think most criminal justice professionals would support that reform as well.
REHMAll right. I want to open the phones at this point. We have many callers waiting. Let's go first to Chris in New York City. You're on the air.
CHRISHi, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
CHRISI'm very glad that you're addressing this topic. I wanted to call in and share. I'm the executive director of the survivor advocacy organization called Male Survivor. And in our experience, one of -- we feel strongly that registries can be a helpful tool in the work of prevention. And I think it's important to make that point clear. One of the things that I have been concerned about, listening to the program, is there have been a couple of points sort of driven home that everybody agrees that there needs to be reform. And we certainly agree with that as well. However, there are clearly -- there is clearly a need for the use of registries in an informed way that does help identify those offenders who truly are at risk.
CHRISAnd as Victor and -- has said, we do have better assessment tools now than we have had in the past. One of the other points that I think is important to really stress, we can't just presume that because it's teenagers engaging in sexual activity here, that they don't represent a potential threat to offend as well moving forward. We know from the research on serial preferential offenders that they often begin acting in predatory ways as adolescents or even younger sometimes. And it's important to make sure that we're not, you know, cutting off our nose to spite our faces of where...
REHMAll right. Brenda, I know you wanted to comment.
JONESYeah. I did want to just point out that while there may be some reason for people to be tracked if they're assessed as being that need, doesn't need to be a public sex offender registry. Could it not be a private one? Could we not go back to having just law enforcement, for instance? I mean, that's one of the things that we suggest.
REHMBut isn't the purpose of the registry to inform the public in the neighborhood, for example?
JONESBut what are they being informed of? That's the question. Right now, it's way too broad.
REHMAll right. We'll get back to that when -- after we take just a short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd let's go right back to the phones, to Sidney in Tampa, Florida. You're on the air.
SIDNEYHi, I have a comment for all of your professionals that are on the line. I am an attorney at law, and I -- the father of my children is on the sexual offender registry. And in Florida, the legal age of consent is 18. He had a consensual relationship with a 17-year-old when he was in his 20s, and now, since the plight or whatever, the publicity of sexual offenders has come to light with that man that abducted those three women and had them in a barn or something, he's lost his job that he had for 10 years, and he cannot get another job because that is on -- his name is on the registry.
SIDNEYAnd since it's a lifelong registration requirement, there was no assessment made as to whether he's a danger to society, he can't step foot in his children's school to see their plays. He cannot, you know, dress up like Santa. We can't give out candy for Halloween. We have three children at home. Who's going to maintain those children? What I suggest to everyone here who's talking about a juvenile offender, when a girl is 17 years old, especially in Florida, I don't know if you've ever seen 17-year-olds in Florida, but they look like they're 30, they know what they're doing at 17.
SIDNEYI would suggest that the age of consent might need to be lowered to 16, as it in Europe, and basically everyone who's on the sexual offender registry for having a consensual relationship with a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old should be taken off the registry.
REHMJill, do you want...
SIDNEYThe registry is made to protect...
REHMJill, do you want to comment?
LEVENSONYes, and I think that -- thank you, this is one of the things that is such a problem, that for lower-risk offenders, it really does interfere with the ability to sort of rebuild their life, engage in constructive and productive activities and, you know, to live the kind of life with their families and employment and academics, et cetera, that we know actually reduce the risk for recidivism. So it is -- there are a lot of obstacles and barriers to successful reintegration.
LEVENSONThe other thing we know from Dr. Karl Hanson, who is the world's leading expert in risk and recidivism of sexual offenders, he's been conducting longitudinal research, following sexual offenders for well over 20 years, and what we know now after all that time is that the vast majority of sex offenders, after about 12 years, they're no more likely to commit -- be re-arrested for a new sexual crime than any other criminal offender.
LEVENSONSo the majority, after a certain amount of time living offense-free in the community, are at a point where it's very unlikely that they're going to continue to go on. Some do. There are exceptions to everything. But as a general rule, once people have been living in the community for a long time offense-free, they're quite unlikely to commit another sexual offense.
REHMYet here's an email from Emma, who says I have three young children and live near a few registered sex offenders. I cannot understand what crimes they committed based on the online registry that I've been able to access. How can I determine what type of crime they've committed? Victor Vieth?
VIETHWell, the -- there are variations, but some public registries give some detail as to what the offense was. If it's an adult offender, you can typically go to the courthouse, read the criminal complaint, learn all sorts of additional details. So those are some options. And if I could just maybe add, probably all of us are living near sex offenders, and the greater danger, I think, is not the ones that we know about but the ones that we don't know about. And so I think there's just a general need to increase the awareness of all parents of how to keep their kids safe.
JONESI would jump in there also, I think you make a good point, in that it is the ones -- actually not the ones we don't know but the ones that are not on a list because that's one of the reasons that I point out that it's -- registries are ineffective. The majority of new offenses and majority of offenses in general are by somebody that a child or adult knows. It's not that sex offender, that dot on the map. It is somebody in your house, it's your Uncle Harry, it's your teacher.
JONESIt's a trusted relationship. It's somebody that they know.
LEVENSONFamily members, teachers, priests. I mean...
JONESIt's the people that we know, and that's why we feel like it's totally ineffective to be putting all these people on registries when the money could be much better spent on the family prevention, on, you know, learning to recognize signs of abuse, et cetera.
SMITHCan I just weigh in?
REHMThere is -- there is another aspect here, which has been said many times by people who are treating sex offenders, and that for this, Jill, I'll come to you, that the rationale for these lists is that these sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated if they are, say, adults to begin with. I don't know about young people. But what does the research tell us?
LEVENSONThe research does not support the idea that all sex offenders are irredeemable and can't be rehabilitated. And maybe the first mistake is that we kind of lump everybody together as a big they. So what we know is that not all sex offenders are the same. Certainly on the one end of the continuum, there are some people who do have the disorder of pedophilia. Are we going to change people's sexual attraction and cure them of being attracted to children? In some of those cases, no. But we certainly can help people successfully to learn to manage their behavior, to understand the harmfulness of their behavior.
LEVENSONAnd again, that is a smaller percentage. The vast majority of individuals on registries do not meet the criteria for pedophilia and respond well to treatment.
JONESAnd they also don't re-offend.
SMITHSo I just want to push back. There's a level of paranoia when we talk about the sex offenders in our midst and that we should be very careful not just about people on the registry but about others. There's no data to suggest that we're somehow in an epidemic of sexual offending. I want to respond to the woman whose partner or the father of her children was with a 17-year-old and now can't see his own kids at school and can't work. That's absurd. My heart goes out to you and your family. It's one of those kind of nightmarish, "Clockwork Orange," you know, "2001," whatever the kind of nightmare image of the state gone nuts.
SMITHThe criminal law is supposed to foster taking responsibility. And when a person errs, and they commit a crime, it's a crime against all of us. They're supposed to be able to go and discharge their debt to society, be punished and then rejoin the rest of us and hopefully rejoin the rest of us and be able to show that they've changed.
SMITHThese residency requirements, registration requirements, work restrictions, create a group of pariahs who we're separating forever from us as a society. There's no coming back. There are encampments, there are little tent villages that exist in various parts of the country, in Seattle, in South Florida, where people that can't live anywhere because they're too close to children.
JONESThe forever I think is also significant in that it's forever because it's not really a part of the punishment. I mean, it's -- you would agree, I would agree, this is punitive, but the fact is that registries, almost across the board, are not a part of a person's actual sentence. They're a collateral consequence.
SMITHRight, they're civil, not criminal.
JONESSo there's no way, in most instances, to go back to a judge and say hi, I'm cured now, I'm no longer a risk, please take me off the registry, because it's just -- it's been legislated.
REHMAll right, let's go to Cleveland, Ohio, Jared, you're on the air.
JAREDHi, Diane, thanks for having me on the show.
JAREDI had two quick questions. One was, when your panel noted that the 14-year-old may be more sexually experienced than the 19-year-old, how do you differentiate the quote-unquote juvenile personality of the 19-year-old from the 14-year-olds? I get that 18 is the legal age of adulthood, but in certain aspects, the 19-year-old would be more of a juvenile than the 14-year-old.
LEVENSONBecause of the developmental age, because young men develop more slowly, by two years, at least, is what I'm told. Is that correct?
JAREDYes. The second question would be also, how would you then deem a mature 14-year-old not being traumatized to a parent being vexed over what their child is doing and then pushing legal action instead of the child being, for all intents and purposes, okay with it regardless of age and experience?
SMITHI think probably the criminal prosecution of Zachary Anderson was traumatic to the 14-year-old girl with whom he hooked up. I mean, that's what the record suggests. The girl and her mother went to the federal judge and begged for leniency. The girl apparently, at least according to the New York Times, said if there needs to be some sort of intervention, it should be the lowest possible intervention. That suggests to me that she didn't think there should be any intervention. That has to have been traumatic for her.
REHMNow Victor Vieth, in that situation, let's for the point of discussion assume that that was the first time the young man had ever been found out to have had a relationship, a sexual relationship, with a 14-year-old girl, would you believe that that young man should be placed on such a registry that could affect his entire lifetime?
VIETHFirst of all, you can't have a sexual relationship with a child. So we have to change our language. But if this was the first time he sexually abused a child, taking into account the developmental issues that we're talking about, so on and so forth, he's probably not somebody who should be on a registration for life. Probation and treatment, other things, can sort it out. My primary issue with that particular case, as we talked about earlier, is there wasn't an assessment to really determine whether or not he was high risk to re-offend.
VIETHAnd as long as I'm chatting, I have to clarify, according to the ACE research, one out of four men in our country, one out of six women, were sexually abused before they reached the age of 18. That is a significant number. So it's just not true to say that we don't have data saying there's a large level of sexual violations going on in our country.
REHMJill, do you want to comment?
LEVENSONWell, yes, there certain -- sexual violence and sexual abuse is a problem. It is a social problem that affects kids, victims, families, communities, for long periods of time. So it's certainly something we want to pay attention to. I do think, though -- and in terms of sexual offenders, we also know that there are a smallish number of offenders with large number of victims and who do pose a continuing threat to people in the community.
LEVENSONSo I'd like to talk for a moment, ideally, about what registry reform might look like. And first of all, according to the research I mentioned earlier, we do know that after a certain amount of -- a period of time, 12 to 15 years, in the community offense-free, most sex offenders are quite unlikely to go on and commit another sex offense. So 25-year and lifetime registration is not only probably not necessary for most offenders, but it's really not sustainable in the long term, in terms of the fiscal costs associated with it.
LEVENSONI think that ideally, registry reform would be brought more in line with the scientific research, showing long-term recidivism rates and who's most at risk for re-offending, that we would create risk assessment systems. You know, I think you're correct that we should be assessing people before they're sentenced. We should make a determination based on empirically derived risk factors about what kind of threat people -- what kind of a threat people pose to the community and the severity of that.
LEVENSONAnd I think that we should really reserve long-term registration for repeat offenders, violent offenders, people with multiple victims, predatory pedophilia and that shorter registration durations would be perfectly adequate for lower-risk offenders, with some mechanism to petition to be able to come off and then to be able to move on, to live a productive and constructive life.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Brenda, I gather that you know someone who has served time for a sex offense and will soon be released. Now, what's going to happen to that person?
JONESWell, as with all the persons who are released, there's going to be a period of probation and such. Everybody who's released for a sex offense is going to end up on a registry. In my state, which is Maryland, they're going to be required to put all of their information, you know, personal information, up on the Internet, probably not have access to emails or the computer. They would be restricted from most jobs. It will be very, very difficult. He's busy looking right now for ways to be self-employed because that's the one thing that -- if you don't have a boss, you can try to work. But that's not for everybody. So he's looking at a real uphill battle.
REHMGo ahead, Abbe.
SMITHWe forgot to mention that included, in Zachary Anderson's sentence, the young man whose case was reported in the New York Times, is that he's not to go on a computer.
SMITHFor five years. Now in this day and age, that's not being alive on some level. It reminds me of a haunting case I had when I was a young public defender. I represented a 19-year-old man who had cerebral palsy, was in a wheelchair and had been convicted of approaching children and asking them to do things that were sexual. And the judge, as part of the sentence, suggested that he would take the young man's wheelchair from him.
SMITHTaking away the Internet is kind of comparable to that on some level these days.
REHMEspecially because, as I understood it, Zach was looking for work in exactly that field.
SMITHAnd he was studying computer science, apparently, at community college.
JONESRight, he wanted to go to college.
REHMSo one wonders, do you see adjustments being made to these registries, Abbe?
SMITHI hope so. You know, the discussion today suggests that thoughtful people across the spectrum think there needs to be some reform, you know, including prosecutors and judges. I'm hoping this one case is a wake-up call because, you know, young Mr. Anderson kind of, you know, is a kind of poster. He's -- unfortunately maybe because he's white, he's from the Midwest, you know, he lives with his parents, he goes to school, there's no evidence that he ever offended before. Maybe this is the kind of story that will change some minds.
REHMDo you believe that?
JONESI would sincerely hope so. He's definitely a good poster child for everything that's wrong with the registry and all of the changes that need to happen. So I do hope we'll see some change.
REHMBrenda Jones, Abbe Smith, Jill Levenson and Victor Vieth, thank you all so much, and we'll keep following this. I'm interested as to how the process will evolve. Thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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