Sex-offender laws are ineffective and unfair, critics say

Experts say public registries don't reduce assault — and sex offenders are increasingly challenging the rules in court

Frank Lindsay has sued 19 cities and counties in California that ban him and others who have served time for sex crimes from public places.
Daniel Dreifuss

Frank Lindsay, 62, is a father, small-business owner and avid surfer. He’s also one of 105,000 people in California — and 760,000 nationally — listed as a sex offender. In accordance with federal law, his name, photograph and home address appear in a public, online offender registry. In 1979, Lindsay, then 27, was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor under the age of 14.

“I thought I could do whatever I wanted,” Lindsay says. “Add on some alcohol, and I was a real asshole.”

Today, Lindsay considers himself a reformed man. He says he hasn’t had a drink in 30 years, is a Taoist and advocate for restorative justice — encouraging violent people to make amends for their actions. But, he says, “It seems that I can never be forgiven.”

Few groups are as widely despised as sex offenders. Activities prosecuted as sex offenses vary by state, but can include public urination, consensual sex between teenagers, streaking, prostitution, downloading child pornography and rape. In some states, law-enforcement officials distribute flyers to notify neighbors of registrants’ convictions. Some registrants are prohibited from using the Internet. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that indefinite detention at psychiatric hospitals — or “civil commitment” — of sex offenders is constitutional.

The first law requiring sex offenders to register publicly and for life was passed in California in 1947 and targeted gay men, according to Andrew Extein, executive director of the Center for Sexual Justice. But many of today’s laws have their origins in the late 1970s, when feminists and social conservatives worked together to publicize high-profile “stranger danger” attacks on children, says Roger Lancaster, anthropology professor at George Mason University and author of “Sex Panic and the Punitive State.”

Beginning in the mid-1990s, several laws went into effect that changed how sex-offense cases were prosecuted. In 1994, states were required to create databases of sex offenders. Two years later, Megan’s Law, named for a 7-year-old in New Jersey who was brutally raped and murdered by a neighbor with two previous sex convictions, allowed states to make those registries public. States passed their own versions of the law; in some cases, they required that neighbors be notified of paroled offenders’ previous convictions. Later laws moved those sex-offender databases online, created a national registry, required lifetime registration of people 14 years old and up and imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving children.

But almost 20 years after the passage of Megan’s Law, criminologists and judges, along with a burgeoning movement of sex-offender registrants and their families, are challenging not only the constitutionality of the laws but their effectiveness in reducing sexual assault. In January, a California court ruled in favor of a paroled sex offender who had argued that city and county “child-safety zone” ordinances prohibiting people in the registry from using parks, beaches and similar recreation areas were an unconstitutional form of banishment. In April, the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling by declining to review it.

Thirty-three states have opted out of at least some aspects of the law that brings registries online. Many, like New York, take issue with the 2006 federal law that requires states to list every person convicted of a sex offense on a public registry. Some, like Maryland, are considering removing the names of people who committed less serious offenses. 

Megan's Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses.

Department of Justice study

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, an opponent of loosening sex-offender registry rules, joins local law enforcement officials to discuss the importance of sustaining his veto of a state bill that would remove hundreds of sex offenders from public sex offender websites.
Bill Greenblatt / UPI / Landov

Critics say the registries’ emphasis on public tracking of sex offenders after their release from prison does not make people safer. Ninety-five percent of those arrested for sexual offenses have no prior convictions. Recidivism rates are low: A study conducted by the Canadian government looked at data from 10 studies on sex-offender recidivism in Canada, the United Kingdom, Wales and the United States and found that “after 15 years, 73% of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence.” 

In most sex-abuse cases — 93 percent, according to a Department of Justice report — the child knows the perpetrator. Nearly half of abusers are family or extended-family members. A 2008 American Psychological Association report concurs: “Despite the public perception that sex offenders are strangers stalking playgrounds and other areas where children congregate, the majority of offenses occur in the victim’s home or the home of a friend, neighbor, or relative.” 

A 2008 Justice Department study examined recidivism among sex offenders before and after the law requiring community notification. “Megan’s Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses,” it concluded. 

Says a 2009 report by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution: “None of these high-profile strategies has been built on empirical evaluation, and virtually all have gone to national scale without research or even much pilot testing.” 

What registration laws do is make it nearly impossible for those listed to find or keep jobs and housing, advocates say. Residency restrictions in California have created a housing crisis for convicted sex offenders. According to the California Sex Offender Management Board, the number of homeless registrants has increased 217 percent, to 6,500, over the past eight years.

Lancaster, the George Mason professor, says the criminal-justice system should overhaul how it approaches sex offenses. “Punishment is a poor instrument for reducing these occurrences,” he says. “If you want to reduce child abuse and domestic violence, the solution is to enhance the economic standing of women and children” so that they could more easily leave abusers.

To help curb sexual abuse, some advocates point to programs like one in Germany that offers free and confidential treatment for adults who have “sexual fantasies directed toward children.” Germany, unlike the United States, does not require mental-health professionals and others to report to law enforcement anyone they suspect has touched a child inappropriately. In the United States, several hotlines offer “confidential and anonymous support” but are legally required to turn over information to authorities if callers disclose identifying information. That fear keeps some potential assailants from confiding in therapists or seeking treatment, says Extein of the Center for Sexual Justice, who has worked as a therapist with convicted sex offenders.

Supporters of registering and limiting the movement of paroled sex offenders, including Tony Rackauckas, one of the first district attorneys in California to support countywide child-safety zones, however, are not persuaded by these arguments and say the registries do prevent attacks. “We’re not going to know how many kids were not molested or groomed for later sexual contact as a result of this law,” he told The New York Times.

It seems to me that sex offenders have more rights than my children.

Lula Davis-Holmes

city council member in Carson, Calif.

California, known as the second-harshest state for sex offenders after Florida, has the highest number of people in its sex-offender registry. Under state law, Lindsay will remain on the list for the rest of his life. He can’t move or travel without notifying the police. “I couldn’t travel anywhere in this state and not be sure that I didn’t break a law just by being present,” he says.

A 2006 law that prohibits individuals listed in the sex-offender registry from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks also mandates that people convicted of felony sex offenses be monitored with GPS devices. On top of that, since 2006, 79 California cities have passed child-safety-zone ordinances, which prevent people with sex-crime convictions in some cases from coming within 200 feet of parks, libraries, beaches or bus stops. The ordinances also require that offenders secure police permission to visit public and private places where children might congregate.

After January’s court decision striking down the ordinances, many — but not all — cities and counties stopped enforcing or repealed them. Since March, with help from the advocacy group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, Lindsay has filed lawsuits against 19 cities that continued to ban him and other ex-offenders from public places. Seventeen of the cities then dropped their ordinances; the other two cases are still pending.

Registrants in other states have filed similar lawsuits, with mixed results. In 2010, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a convicted sex offender could be denied the right to attend a church. But last year, a Colorado man fought and won against a city restriction banning him from what amounted to 99 percent of the town of Englewood. At the federal level, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Albuquerque man who fought a local ban keeping sex offenders from using a public library. But the court recently refused to hear a case in which a Virginia woman alleged that the registry itself was unconstitutional.

In California, the legal fights have prompted an outcry. Carson, in Los Angeles County, is one of the two cities that have refused to repeal their ordinances prohibiting registered sex offenders from setting foot within 300 feet of various public places. “Speaking as a mother and a councilwoman, I think it’s wrong,” says Carson City Council Member Lula Davis-Holmes of the April court decision. “It seems to me that sex offenders have more rights than my children.”

Other politicians have made similar arguments. Ron Morrison, mayor of National City, which Lindsay also sued, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in April that current state laws allow sex offenders to “wake up in the morning and walk a quarter of a mile and hang on the chain link fence at a nursery school.” 

When Megan’s Law went into effect in 1994, Lindsay had been off probation for 12 years. He had married, was raising a daughter and ran a successful water-treatment business. He had been voted Volunteer of the Year and Citizen of the Year in Pismo Beach, where he lived and worked.

Even those convicted of sex offenses and paroled prior to the law were required to register. Soon after Lindsay’s personal information and conviction became public information at the local sheriff’s office, he lost his business lease. He was forced to leave his home in order to comply with new state and city residency requirements. Today, his business, which once brought in $100,000 a year, barely yields $24,000.

In 2010, Lindsay was attacked in his home by a young man wielding a sledgehammer. David Jordan Griffin, 21, found Lindsay’s address on a Megan’s Law website. “He hated sex offenders and wanted to kill me,” Lindsay says.

Although Lindsay was shaken up by the attack, he says, “What I saw was a confused young man.” From news articles, Lindsay learned that his attacker grew up in the northern part of the state and didn’t have much money, he says. Lindsay chose not to press charges against Griffin. He eventually befriended Griffin’s mother and then began to communicate with Griffin himself, who had been sentenced to 13 years in prison. Lindsay now writes to Griffin regularly and visits.

Lindsay has not spoken with the woman he assaulted years ago, he says, because the court ordered him not to contact her. These days, Lindsay stays home a lot.

“The local media wants to crucify me,” he says. “If somebody wants to pull out a gun and shoot me, then they will. But someone’s got to do this. I’m doing this for 105,000 others, for a million others.”

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