Criminal Law

Keeping Tabs on Sex Offenders

When it comes to treatment of convicted sex offenders, Americans and the American justice system are very concerned. Sex offenders are seen as targeting the most vulnerable populations, especially women and children. They are often subject to longer prison terms and closer supervision once released than other kinds of offenders.

Currently, there are about 747,500 registered sex offenders in the United States. About one-third of these individuals are currently under close supervision, in prison or jail, in halfway houses or on probation. The rest have returned, unsupervised, to the community.

Low Rate of Recidivism

While in the criminal justice system, convicted sex offenders are required to undergo an array of treatments intended to deter them from re-offending. As a result of incarceration and treatment, only 5.3 percent of all sex offenders re-offend upon release (although those convicted of violent offenses re-offend more often). This rate is much lower than the rate for all other categories of convicts.

Nonetheless, citizens want to make sure that they and their children are protected against the perceived danger of convicted sex offenders. Offenders who have exited the criminal justice system want to return to a normal life. These goals are starkly opposed.

Sex Offenders Must Register

In the United States, there are a variety of sex offender registration and notification systems. Generally, sex offenders are required to register with law enforcement of any state, locality, territory or tribe within which they reside, work and attend school.

In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which required all 50 states to maintain a registry of sex offenders’ addresses so that their whereabouts would be known to local law enforcement agencies. Concerned residents can consult these registries.

Registration ranges from 10 years to the convicted sex offender’s lifetime. Recent legislation in some states requires that offenders also reveal their email addresses, chat room IDs and instant-messaging aliases. In some states, offenders must wear ankle bracelets as long as they are registered.

Communities Must Notify

In 1996, “Megan’s Law” amended the Wetterling Act to allow for community notification. This mandated that law enforcement personnel proactively disclose registry information to neighborhood residents about sex offenders who live in close proximity. Landlords must include information about how to use the registry in their lease documents.

Some states notify the public only about sex offenders who pose a high risk to the community, but others employ broad notification practices and distribute information about all registered sex offenders. Community notification strategies can include press releases, flyers and door-to-door warnings about the presence of sex offenders.

Recent developments include the mandate that states sponsor Internet websites listing convicted sex offenders and, via the 2007 Adam Walsh Act, the establishment of a national online sex offender registry that allows a search beyond state borders.

Under the Adam Walsh Act, registered sex offenders must avoid by 500 to 2,500 feet all schools, bus stops, gyms, recreation centers, playgrounds, parks, swimming pools, libraries, nursing homes and places of worship.

Contact a Criminal or Civil Rights Lawyer

The laws surrounding the activities of convicted sex offenders once they are released from supervision can be complicated. Plus, the laws in each state and the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the subject. It is not legal advice. For more detailed information about your specific situation, please contact a criminal or a civil rights lawyer.

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