Sex Offender Defined
A sex offender is simply a person who has been convicted of a criminal sexual offense.
Defining a "criminal sexual offense" differs from state to state, but generally includes rape; sexual exploitation - particularly of minors; sexual torture; sexual abuse; enticing a minor for immoral purposes; pimping or pandering of minors, and various computer and Internet activities that victimize children.
Sexual Predator Defined
In many states, "sexual predator" is a label given to a sexual offender who uses violence, is convicted more than once of a sexual offense, or preys on children. Sexual predators are the worst of the worst because of the imminent threat they pose to society.
The Threat Defined
Sexual offenders pick on the most vulnerable members of society. Children under 18 are the victims in 67% of all reported sexual assaults. Children under 12 are the victims in 34% of all reported sexual assaults.
Sentences for most sex offenses are relatively short -- and most sex offenders are not behind bars. They're living anonymously in communities and workplaces -- sometimes in places where one would least suspect. In particular, child predators are drawn to environments rich with potential victims such as daycare centers, schools, or foster care.
There is no absolute count of sex offenders in the US, but Justice Department estimates place the number nearly as high as 500,000. Sex offenders are very likely to repeat their crimes -- and many will even tell you their actions are compulsions that can't be suppressed. There is no recognized cure for those compulsions.
Sex Offender Registries
Because sex offenders living in communities do pose a threat -- particularly to children -- all 50 states and the District of Columbia have a mandate to create a publicly accessible registry of convicted sex offenders.
In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act set out criteria for minimally sufficient state programs for these sex offender registries. These criteria are minimal, and provide little more than loose guidelines. As a result, countless flaws plague the registration system and loopholes allow sex offenders to evade registration, reoffend and remain undetected as they move between jurisdictions.
To date, courts have found sex offender registration programs to be regulatory -- and for the good of the community, rather than punitive -- as a disciplinary measure against an offender.
The problem of child sex ofenders and predators is troubling and complex. Here are some basic definitions and a quick look at some of the systems in place today.
The biggest problem with the current system is the numerous disparities between states' regulations. Because the Jacob Wetterling Act was pieced together as a quick way for states to create sex offender registries and only required states to meet the bare minimum requirements, many states overlooked the importance of the Act. While many states went above and beyond the call to action by implementing solid regulations, others scraped by with skimpy programs. It is exactly this inconsistency that creates the loopholes through which sex offenders evade justice.
Some of the differences between state regulations that hinder progress in moving toward a successful sex offender registry system are:
- Which types of offenders must register
- The time frame offenders have to notify of any changes of address
- The actual information being registered (name, crimes, photos)
- Who has the burden to notify other states if an offender moves locations
Because states lack consistent regulations, in certain states it is left up to sex offenders to take initiative and re-register. It's no surprise that they don't. Loopholes like these make it too easy for sex offenders to live among us without our knowledge. Only stronger laws with explicit standards will help us regulate sexual offenders and predators.
The vast majority of states encounter the very same problems while trying to combat their communities' sexual offenders. One of the most prevalent of these issues is the lack of sufficient funding and personnel for individual programs. Additionally, there is a lack of law enforcement personnel who are dedicated to working solely on sex offender cases. There are many other issues that obscure the distinctions between states' programs, some of which include:
Ambiguous Standards of Notification
- The inability to track homeless registered sex offenders
- A lack of notice by jails and prisons of offenders' release
- The length of offender's initial registry period
- Clear and sufficient notice in changes of registry information
- Every state has a different penalty when an offender is prosecuted
An amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act was Megan's Law. Its purpose was to provide communities with an awareness of offenders in their midst. But again, much discretion was left to states. Megan's Law simply lays out that states may disclose information about a registered sex offender for any purposes permitted by the state and that this information must be disclosed when necessary to protect the public concerning a specific registered sex offender.
Inconsistencies in notification regulation create confusion for parents about where to go to find the information they seek about sex offenders. Many states even have notification standards that vary within the state, from county to county.
There are two basic types of notification -- passive or active. Passive notification means the information is available to the public, but they have to seek out the information. Many states provide websites for this purpose that allow the public to browse names of registered offenders in their community. But in some states residents must request information by fax, phone, or letter about a specific individual or visit a state or county office to browse records.
An active notification program is ideal. It means law enforcement agencies within a state take initiative in alerting neighborhoods and institutions when a sexual offender is moving in, through distributing flyers or knocking on doors to get the message out.