Photo via Flickr User Paul Bonke Justesen
The California Sex Offender Management Board, which oversees California's sex offender registration laws, announced last week that the database is too big, and that it's not helpful in its current form. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday that the board is recommending to the state legislature that only violent offenders, such as kidnappers and sexual predators be compelled to register for life.
All states in the US must have sex offender registries, but California's is the weightiest, with over 100,000 lucky members, 900 of whom have been molestation-free for 55 years or more.
This is partly because the state is the most populous, but moreover, all California sex offenders, no matter their offense, have to stay registered for life, including public urinators, underage sexters, and women who flash their tits at concerts.
The last of these leads to "hilarious" articles like this one featuring lists of babealicious babes who are sex offenders! And the attitude of, 'I wouldn't mind one of them molesting me! It's funny because sex offender registries are a waste of public funds, and do nothing except punish sex offenders for life with unnecessary inconvenience and bureaucracy! LOL.'
And consequently the sex offenders themselves have been lobbying for a change like this. Last year, the New York Times reported on the Herculean task of standing up for your rights, such as they are, when you're among what is unquestionably the most hated category of Americans. “I find it very offensive that registered sex offenders are trying to defeat the measures we have put in place to protect children,” an activist lawyer named Nina Solerno told the Times. “They created their own issues. In trying to find sympathy, they’re forgetting that somebody was assaulted, in many cases a child." Touché.
Jim Nielsen, who doesn't believe we should "intellectualise" these things. Screencapped from his site
But momentarily taking it for granted that sex offender registries work (they don't), there's a line where fairness ends, and needless torment begins, isn't there? It would be wrong to, say, let them become middle school gym teachers. Conversely it would be wrong to give them all lobotomies. I'm not saying either extreme is being argued for, but I am saying there's an argument over where the line is and for the time being we've settled on sex offender registries because they seem practical, not just punitive.
But as I've hinted, California's registry isn't practical. Amanda Agan, a postdoctoral fellow in economics at Princeton studied sex offender registries at The University of Chicago. She explained her findings to NPR's On the Media in 2011. She compared multiple studies, across multiple types of registries, including ones like California's, and found that when the information is public, the patten of recidivism (which means committing a crime again) was discouraging.
When they were in a public registry there was "a slight increase in how much they recidivated," although "a slight deterrent effect for first-time offenders. But as the registry size grows, it seems like that recidivism effects swamps the first-time registrant effect. And so, we get kind of an overall increase in sex crimes." Are you getting this? Sex crimes increased.
One possible reason she cites is opportunity cost. Good citizens who don't commit sex crimes have a lot to lose. Registered sex offenders on the other hand, "are somewhat more isolated from society, and that may make it so if they are thinking about committing a crime, the costs that we may think of – the cost that we may lose our job, that we may lose the ties to our families – those costs don’t exist for them anymore."
But not all sex offender registries are like this. Some states only register sex criminals for ten years. Some states only register violent offenders. California's policies have created the world's largest registry, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger added massive and expensive measures to make it even more unlivable if you're on the list, like GPS monitoring for life, despite 95 percent of sex crimes being committed by people who weren't in the registry.
That the board that oversees the registry itself is now calling for a change is an indication that they may have finally noticed the problem. The steps they're proposing would bring California's sex offender registry down to the relative sanity of most other states, i.e. from draconian to just useless. Nancy O'Malley, who chairs the board assured the Chronicle "What we are proposing won't jeopardize public safety or unleash sex offenders who are dangerous in the community. If done correctly and if done in a way that isn't so broad that no one is held accountable, then the public doesn't have to fear about their safety or their children's safety." It has a nice, reasonable sound to it.
But legislators won't listen to reason. They literally said they won't. One particular California state assemblyman named Jim Nielsen, from Yolo County, said, "I'm willing to work in a responsible way on legislation that builds in the highest level of protections for the public. This proposal concerns me enormously. I think the risks are too great to try to intellectualise this stuff."
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