What good is an inaccurate sex offender registry?

Sex offender registries are often out-of-date, may contain erroneous information, provide a false sense of security to the public, and can damage the lives of those required to register.

South Carolina has changed the systems it uses for its sex offender registry in the last year. The state previously contracted with a private vendor to provide the registry, but last year the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) changed to a new system provided by the Department of Justice. The new registry, Sex Offender Registry Tool (SORT), however, has been found to have some inaccuracies as compared with the previous system.

This has led seven counties to contract with a vendor for access to their OffenderWatch system, which is the system the state had previously relied on for these services. The SORT system will save the state money as the chief of SLED noted that the private vendor could increase costs at any time.

Critics of the new system claim it has discrepancies that can cause individuals to believe offenders are not in compliance and could cause fear and stress. Of course, it could also lead to problems for those in the registry if accusations were based on inaccurate entries.

Do sex offender registries serve a valuable purpose?

The larger question is do these registries serve any purpose at all. The premise behind these registries is that the public can learn of a sex offender who lives nearby and take steps to "protect" themselves and their children.

The reality is most sex offenses are not committed by previously convicted sex offenders. The recidivism rate for sex offenses is low, so even with a very accurate and scrupulously maintained registry, the chances of an offender on the list reoffending is low.

A false sense of security

Another criticism of these registries is that they may create a false sense of security. People may believe because there are no registered sex offenders living nearby, they and their children have little risk of becoming a victim. Since many sex offenses are committed by family members and close friends, they may ignore warning signs and dismiss troubling behavior.

While occasional cases may grab headlines, random abductions or assaults happen very infrequently, but because of their high profile, many federal and state laws have been created to protect against these very rare incidents. Laws like Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Megan's Law, and the Adam Walsh Protection Act (AWA) are all examples of such laws.

However, in their wake, federal and state sex offender registries and local residency restrictions, limiting where offenders can live, have a devastating effect on thousands of individuals. In most cases, these individuals have already served their full sentence and have been released from incarceration. Penalties for failing to register can include fines and reincarceration.

This might make sense if these laws made everyone safer, but since the enactment of most of these laws, there has been little or no change in the occurrence sex crimes. This combined with the fact that studies have found between 93 and 96 percent of sex offenses are committed by a first-time offenders points to the inadequacy of these registries as public safety tools.

Multiple registrations every year

After release, offenders then must endure years or a lifetime of registration requirements. In South Carolina, this means at least twice a year, they must report where they live and some may have to do it four times a year. In addition, if they live in one county, go to school in another county and work in a third county, they would have to repeat this process in each county.

The problem with this system is with this many moving parts there are many opportunities for things to break. The inaccuracies seen when examining the SORT and OffenderWatch databases are but one example. Because each county sheriff's office in South Carolina has to process records for any offender in their jurisdiction, the data entry alone is burdensome to the counties.

Paying a private vendor is another option, but that still leaves the basic question. How do these systems contribute to public safety? The premise that the majority of sex offenders pose a "threat" to the public has little supporting evidence. Recidivism data from the Department of Justice indicates registered sex offenders have a recidivism rate of 3.5 percent, the lowest of any classification of offenses.

Administrative violations can lead back to jail

The demanding and burdensome registration rules can lead to offenders failing to register and then being charged with violations of those requirements, which could then send them back to prison. For an offender, struggling with these requirements and the oppressive residency restriction on where they can live, can make putting their lives back together virtually impossible.

With the internet and cellphones, it is easier than ever to run afoul of a sex crime charge. A single bad judgment could lead to a lifetime sex offender registration requirement.

This is why if you have been charged with any sex related offense, you need an aggressive defense strategy that can prevent a conviction or avoid many of these post-sentence registration requirements. The attorneys at Aaron & Aaron have the experience to guide you through this process and by contacting the firm as soon as possible will allow the strongest possible defense.