For many people, sexual offenders are considered the most heinous of criminals. Within prison populations, sex offenders are at risk of being beaten or even killed. At best they are ostracized by other inmates and must be housed in protective custody. Things do not get much better after being released from prison. Sex offenders are subject to intensive parole guidelines, registration regulations, housing restrictions, and employment issues. This essay will define the term sexual offense, discuss the extent of the crime in the United States, describe current laws and restrictions, and explain what is being done to address these crimes.
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Some states have issued laws that provide broad coverage over several sexual crimes. According to Schmalleger and Hall, “Criminal sexual conduct is a gender-neutral term applied today to a wide variety of sex offenses, including rape, sodomy, criminal sexual conduct with children, and deviate sexual behavior” (2017, p. 255). Similarly, states may have laws against sexual assault. RAINN states that “Sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim and includes rape, attempted rape, fondling or unwanted touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts such as oral sex” (Sexual Assault, 2018). Other forms of sexual assault or criminal sexual conduct includes intimate partner sexual violence, incest, and drug-facilitated sexual assault (date rape).
Viewing statistics, sexual offenses are fairly common in the United States. According to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives” (Sexual Assault in the United States, 2018). This is in direct contradiction to the belief that men cannot be or are never sexually assaulted. RAINN provides data on the number of people victimized each year. For example (dates of findings are shown), “312,500 Americans 12 and older were sexual assaulted or raped (2015); 80,600 inmates were sexually assaulted or raped (2013); 60,000 children were victims of substantiated or indicated sexual abuse; and 18,900 military personnel experienced unwanted sexual contact (2015)” (Scope of the Problem, 2018). The data clearly shows that children 12 and older and adults were victimized the most.
It is important to realize that although statistics can often be skewed to support the argument, research shows these numbers to be true. For example, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, states that “sexual violence has fallen by more than half since 1993” (Scope of the Problem, 2018). This is in contrast to many media sources who perpetuate fear and sex offender myth. According to King and Roberts, “…it has been posited that media sensationalism has contributed to the myths that all sex offenders are recidivistic, untreatable predators, and that sex crimes have reached epidemic proportions” (2017, p. 71). Media sources find sex crimes much more lucrative and interesting than homicide or lesser crimes and influence the public’s view of sexual offenders. In a 2008 study of public attitudes toward sex offenders, the mean prison sentence a sex offender should serve was 38.8 years, although the mode was 99 years, which was the largest number that would fit in the space provided” (King and Roberts, 2017, p. 73). This is equal or even less than some murder convictions. In some states, offenders who commit murder can receive as little as 20 years. “The study also discovered significant public support for the use of capital punishment for rapists (47%) and child molesters (65%)” (p. 74). Interestingly, only the most aggravating homicides convictions usually receive the death penalty. Although the public has a great fear of sex offenders, in most cases it hasn’t directly affected sentencing outcomes. The fact is, “less than one-third of those convicted of criminal sexual assault (28.7%) are sent to prison” (Patrick and Marsh, 2011). A high percentage of offenders who are convicted of sex offenses are those who commit child sexual abuse. The authors further state that “criminal sexual assault is considered such a heinous crime that a number of states have enacted civil confinement laws for repeat violent offenders” (2011). Civil confinement is when an offender is confined to a mental institution and occurs after he or she has completed their prison sentence and can extend for an indefinite amount of time. It is important to point out that civil confinement is only initiated against extremely sexually violent inmates.
One of the most restrictive sex offender laws is the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, established a comprehensive national sex offender registration system, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), and among many other things, set up a system that classifies sex offenders into three tiers depending on the severity of the crime” (Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Sex Offender Registration, 2018). Tier three houses the most serious offenses, tier two is for moderately serious offenses, and tier one provides requirements for less serious offenses. The tiers include:
- “Tier three: lifetime registration requirement. Offenders update their information (current address, offenses, etc.), every three months.
- Tier two: 25 years registration requirement. Offenders must update their information every six months.
- Tier one: 15 year registration requirement. Offenders must update their information every year” (Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Sex Offender Registration, 2018).
All of the above tiers are directly tied to SORNA. The registration requirements provide federal and local authorities and the public with information on sex offenders in a specific area. Sex offenders must provide information such as their name, current address, and past convictions. Each state provides a state sex offender registry that provides these details to the public. There are also websites such as Criminal Watchdog and Family Watchdog which often provide additional information, such as the sex offender’s photograph or mugshot, age, and place of employment. “SORNA also provides strict penalties for failure to register” (Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Sex Offender Registration, 2018).
Sex offenders have low recidivism rates compared to those convicted of other crimes. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics followed 9,691 male sex offenders, including 4,295 child molesters for three years following their release from prison. “After three years, only 5.3% of sex offenders (rape or sexual assault) were rearrested for another sex crime” (Recidivism of Sex Offenders, 2018). Researchers believe that restrictions such as the sex offender registry and housing limitations only increase recidivism and are not effective in protecting the public. Consider how difficult it is being the most fear and hated person in the neighborhood made even that more difficult. An article in the Evidence-Based Professionals Quarterly states, “criminal justice scholars have been skeptical of the utility of residence restrictions for some time because study after study has suggested that these policies are ineffective and may be resulting in collateral consequences for both registered sex offenders and community members” (Greenburg, 2018). In effect, the registries and restrictions are putting the public more at risk of a sex offender committing another crime because they pose huge barriers to those sex offenders who are trying to not to recidivate.
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Many people believe that there needs to be a balance between rehabilitating a sex offender and ensuring public safety. Sex offender who complete treatment have extremely low recidivism rates. There is also a big difference in the type of sex offender. Not all sex offenders are violent predators. According to Greenburg, “People commit sexual crimes for different reasons, some are highly predatory, highly psychopathic and have repeated offenses, making them more likely to re-offend” (2018). The “highly predatory, highly psychopathic offenders are those who have a higher likelihood of civil confinement, not release. The public needs to be aware that treatment does work if sex offenders are provided access to it. It is also important that treatment begins immediately following incarceration. “Offenders often fail to realize the severity of their crimes, as an antagonistic prison environment can exacerbate feelings of being wrongly accused and hamper treatment and attitudes that led to offending can become stronger, more virulent in prison” (Greenburg, 2018). Most sex offenders will be released back into the community. Change should be initiated as early as possible to help prevent recidivism and more victims.
- Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Sex Offender Registration. (2018). The United States Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/criminal-ceos/citizens-guide-us-federal-law-sex-offender-registration
- Greenburg, K. L. (2018). Sex Offender Risk, Recidivism, and Policy. The Evidence-Based Professionals Quarterly. Vol 2(4). Retrieved from https://www.ebpsociety.org/2018-vol2-no4/295-sex-offender-risk-recidivism-and-policy
- King, L. L., & Roberts, J. J. (2017). The Complexity of Public Attitudes toward Sex Crimes. Victims & Offenders, 12(1), 71–89. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2015.1005266
- Patrick, S. and Marsh, R. (2011). Sentencing Outcomes of Convicted Child Sex Offenders. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. Vol. 20(1).
- Recidivism of Sex Offenders. (2018). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=1136
- Schmalleger, F., and Hall, D. 2017. Criminal Law Today, 6th Edition. Pearson Publishing.
- Scope of the Problem. (2018, October 20). RAINN. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem
- Sexual Assault in the United States. (2018, October 24). National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics
- Types of Sexual Violence. (2018, October 20). RAINN. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/types-sexual-violence
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