·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


Is the Sex Offender Registry Fair?

— January 11, 2022

Failure to Register, in most states, is a serious felony, punishable by jail or prison time.

The 1990s saw a significant rise in horrific sex offenses directed towards children, prompting the federal and state governments to formulate laws to help deter offenders and ensure public safety. One of these laws was the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, requiring convicted offenders to register with their local law enforcement after their release from prison.

In 1996, Congress passed Meghan’s Law (a subsection of the Jacob Wetterling Act), which was then signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This law required law enforcement agencies to publicize the information of convicted sex offenders. This meant that any person needing to look up a person’s name when doing a background check for sex offenses could find their name in the sex offenders register if they had had a sex crimes conviction. Under some jurisdictions, the police must conduct community notification in neighborhoods where convicted sex offenders live.

The intentions of the creators of sex offenders’ registry were considered noble. However, in recent years, sex registry laws have come under much criticism from proponents of criminal justice reform and human rights watch groups as unfair and ineffective in attaining the initial objective. Additionally, sex offenses are the only crimes where offenders suffer double jeopardy for their crimes, which is unfair.

Sex Offender Registration Requirements

All states across America have laws requiring sex offenders to register with their local law enforcement agencies upon release from statutory confinement.

While these laws may differ from one state to another, they have some basic similarities in their requirements. For example, some of the information required in offender registration include:

  • Name and aliases
  • Date of birth
  • Physical description
  • Internet identifiers and email addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • Social security number
  • Residence 
  • Employment information
  • The area the sex offender lived during the commission of the crime.
  • Professional licenses
  • School information if the offender is a student
  • Text of the offense for which they are registering
  • Vehicle registration information
  • Current photograph
  • Fingerprints, palm prints, and DNA

Sexual Crimes Requiring Registration

Various sex offenses require a convicted offender to register under the Sexual Offender Registration Act (SORA). These crimes fall into two broad categories:

  1. Sexual Act/Sexual Contact Offenses: Sexual acts offenses include most sexual assaults that involve any degree of genital, anal or oral penetration, which are classified in many jurisdictions as first degree criminal sexual conduct and third degree criminal sexual conduct. On the other hand, contact offenses involve unwanted touching of another person’s intimate parts or the clothing covering those parts, which are classified in many jurisdictions as second and fourth degree criminal sexual conduct. 
  1. Specified Offenses Against Minors: SORA § 111(7) lists specific crimes against minors that require registration. Some of these offenses include:
  • Kidnapping or holding a minor against their will (false imprisonment)
  • Sexual solicitation of a minor
  • Using a minor to perform a sexual act  
  • Solicitation of a minor for prostitution
  • Video voyeurism involving minors
  • Possession, distribution, and production of child pornography
  • Internet-based criminal sexual conduct involving a minor
  • Conduct that is by nature a sex offense against a minor

Under federal law, a minor is anybody below the age of 18. However, different states have different laws concerning the age at which an individual can legally consent to sex, with the most common age being 16 or 17 years.

Sex Offender Classifications

Under SORA, sexual offenders are classified into three categories, depending on the underlying circumstances. These classes of offenders are Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III.

Every Tier has its unique registration requirement, with Tier I registration being a requirement for a low-level sexual crime, and Tier III registration for the highest-level offenses. Under SORA guidelines, jurisdictions don’t have to adopt the SORA guidelines in their entirety as long as the state’s guidelines meet the minimum requirement for the offense in question.

Due to the lack of a common application of SORA guidelines at the federal level, some states have stringent requirements for their sex offender registries without distinguishing the nature or severity of the sexual offenses committed.

Is the Sex Offender Registry Fair?

While sex offender registration laws are meant to protect children from sexual predators, some aspects make them unfair to the sex crime offender.

According to experts, while the laws may have seemed effective in addressing the run-away incidents of child sexual abuse from child molesters, they are fundamentally flawed and need revision.

Registration Laws Subjects Offenders to Double Punishment

At some point, 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will leave prison after satisfying their statutory criminal sentence. Some of these convicts were incarcerated for grave offenses, including murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, and other less serious crimes. Most convicts will be free to move on with their lives after prison.

However, that’s not the case for sex crime ex-offenders. Under SORA, sex crimes ex-convicts are supposed to register in their respective states of residence. On top of that, they have to update their information between one to four times a year in their state’s sex offender registry.

These sex offender registry requirements indicate bias of America’s Criminal Justice System towards one category of offenders, which goes against the spirit of the American constitution.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, recidivism rates among released sex offender is very low, which does not warrant being designated an offender even after serving time.

Unexpected Ways Through Which Anyone Could Get on Sex Offender Registries

To most people, what comes to mind at the mention of a sex offender is a serial child molester or child predator that commits heinous crimes. The reality is that anyone can find themselves on the sex register for offenses they may not think are serious.

Some of these offenses include:

  • Taking nude pictures of oneself – Any person under the age of 18 can face possession of child pornography charges for taking nudes of themselves upon arrest. What’s more, they may also be charged with distribution if they decide to share their nudes with friends. Upon conviction, such individuals may have to register as sex offenders. 
  • Urinating in public – Under some jurisdictions, urinating in public can result in an indecent exposure charge upon arrest by law enforcement personnel. Upon conviction, one may have to register as a sex offender.
  • Flashing or streaking – While somebody may flash their breasts or genitals jokingly or go streaking as a dare, they can be arrested and charged with indecent exposure, which may require registration upon conviction.
  • Consensual sex between teenagers – Almost everyone might agree that an adult engaging in sexual activity with a minor deserves punishment. Many don’t know that two teenagers under the age of consent in their state can be charged with committing sex crimes, such as sexual assault involving a minor, which could lead to sex offender registration for both of them.
  • Incest – Sex between close family members is a crime in all states. Upon conviction, one may have to register as a sex offender. 

Consequences of Being a Registered Sex Offender

Being listed on the sex offender registry comes with a set of other unintended consequences, which include:

  • Limitations on employment
  • Residency restrictions
  • Restriction on getting rental accommodation
  • Loss of privacy. The information required in registration must include where convicted sex offenders live, their names, place of work, and having to carry a sex offender card (special ID) depending.
  • Loss of child custody
  • Shattered reputation

Can a Person Get Off the Register?

Four teens sitting on bench in front of body of water; image by Sammie Vasquez, via
Four teens sitting on bench in front of body of water; image by Sammie Vasquez, via

Getting off the registry can be a challenge for registered sex offenders. The best approach would be working with a sex crimes lawyer to avoid a conviction. If you are already on the registry, there are a few options. 

In 2006, the federal government passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act to standardize the sex registry removal process across states.

Under the Federal Adam Walsh Act, Tier I offenses can petition the courts to have their names removed from the registry after ten years. Tier II can petition after 25 years, but Tier III has to stay on the list for a lifetime.

Additionally, a person can have their names removed from the registry if:

  • The offense they were convicted for no longer requires registration
  • They have completed their probation period
  • They were juvenile offenders during the commission of the offense
  • A conviction is overturned

What Happens if I Fail to Register?

If you fail to register, in most states, you will be charged with a crime. That crime is commonly known as Failure to Register.

Failure to Register, in most states, is a serious felony, punishable by jail or prison time. If you fail to register in the state that you reside in, you must contact a lawyer that knows how to handle these types of cases, specifically someone who is an expert in the field of sexual assaults. The last thing an offender wants to do is go to prison for failing to register appropriately.

Where is Justice?

Considering the possible ways a person could find themselves on the sex offender registry mentioned above, it is clear that there is no justice in the sex offender’s registration laws for some offenders, if not all.

Some states are particularly harsh on registration requirements, even for sexual offenses that may not be as severe. For example, California and South Carolina subject all sex offenders, irrespective of the nature of the offenses, to lifetime registration, which is unfair by all standards. Michigan, with its recent changes in the law for sex offender registry, allows for retroactive change, therefore some offenders end up being on the registry for years longer than they were originally told.

Several advocate groups continue to fight for justice when it comes to SORA. While there have been some recent changes in the registry laws that benefit the offender, much more work needs to be done.

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