Sex offenders are a plague of the modern America (Logan 1167). During the last couple of decades, there have been numerous reported sex crimes committed by repeat offenders. In response to such cases, state legislatures have sanctioned laws that increased social controls over such offenders. State and federal laws were formulated that mandated released sex offenders to have themselves registered with law enforcement or other state agencies. Under these laws, which have been enacted in all states, offenders were required to provide their contact information and any other identifying information to a state agency or law enforcement office.
Offender registration was first used in the United States in 1930s. The early regulations pertained to repeat criminal offenders along with sex offenders. They were often used to drive out persons who were not desirable (Lieb, Quinsey & Berliner 56). In recent years, offender registration laws have made sex offenders more visible not only to law enforcement agencies but also the public. The first of such sex offender registration law was passed in California in 1947. In 2005, the Justice Department created a website that allowed Internet users to search for sex offenders in all the state databases in a single search.
The purpose of this report is to analyze the progression of the National Sex Offender Registry policy and suggest recommendations based on explicit criteria for effective policy design.
The Sex Offender Registry Policy
In the 1990’s, due to the increase in heinous sex crimes all over the country, the nation’s policy agenda focused on sexual abuse. To safeguard the vulnerable public, especially children, between 1994 and 2003, Congress passed a series of laws which mandated sex offenders to register their contact and other identification information with law enforcement agencies after they were released from incarceration and/or when they received a community service sentence. According to these laws, states were only eligible to receive federal funds only if they established sex offender registries. The Department of Justice (DOJ) established the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) which is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In 1947, in California, the first law was enacted to address the registration of sex offenders (Williams 6). In 1990, Community Protection Act was passed by the State of Washington that required notification of sex offenders to the public (National Criminal Justice Association). At present, 27 states have laws that mandate all juveniles ruled for sex offenses to register; and all 50 states have laws that require notifying the public of sex offenders.
Approaches to Sex Offender Registration
Sex offender registration presents many complexities for the criminal justice system. However, some practices have been suggested that can effectively address many challenges related to the policy.
Collaboration between Criminal Justice System Agencies
In order to comply with the registration laws, criminal justice agencies must work together. It has been noted that sex offender registration policy has been effectively implemented in jurisdictions where coordination and collaboration is present between the court, corrections department, state and local law enforcement, and probation and parole departments. If there are strong working relationships among all pertinent departments, the identification of offenders who need to be registered will be possible. Further, the collection and maintenance of information will also be thorough and coordinated.
Ideally, agencies and individuals responsible for registration should work closely with other members of the community who are in charge of monitoring sex offenders under probation. Many jurisdictions have also established sex offender management teams. These teams are responsible for working closely together in order to manage specific cases under correctional supervision. Furthermore, duplication of effort and potential flaws in the system can also be avoided with open communication between registration agencies, policy analysis and development teams, and those who monitor offenders on a day-to-day basis.
Policy Driven Registration Practices
In order for the policy to be effective, all states must have written practices procedures that can help the management of sex offenders at various levels — from investigation, sentencing and supervision to release from registration requirements. Training must be provided to all pertinent agencies on the policy in order to ensure consistent practice and proper dissemination of data throughout the system.
State Operated, Centralized Registry
The information provided by sex offenders is best maintained in a state operated, centralized registry that can be accessed by all local criminal justice officials. This process can effectively allow information to be exchanged between local law enforcement agencies and the state agency assigned to maintain the registry. Also, in compliance with the Jacob Wetterling Act, a centralized, computerized registry must be present which can be electronically transferable to the FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry.
Intrastate Movement of Offenders
If an offender plans to move to another county or city within a state, the law enforcement agencies in that county or city must provided with the relevant registration information before the offender moves. This would allow the local agencies to proactively notify the community, if necessary, of the offender’s presence.
Interstate Travel of Offenders
Those offenders who move from one state to another pose specific challenges to the registration system. In order to address those challenges, procedures must be established to ensure the transmission of registration information between the states and to adjoining areas. The FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry will definitely help criminal justice officials in keeping track of all offenders when they move from one state to another by providing ready access to a list of all registered sex offenders in the US.
All information collected from sex offenders by criminal justice agencies must be compiled and maintained on files. During the registration process, additional identifying information may be collected from the offender, such as fingerprints, handwriting sample, DNA samples, and HIV status. This information can help in linking an offender to future crimes.
To reinforce the policy, states should also participate in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a computer technology that can help solve violent crimes by comparing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA from convicted offenders. CODIS software, installation and training are provided by the FBI free of charge to any state and local law enforcement laboratory performing DNA analysis.
Ensuring Compliance of Offenders with Registration Requirements
It is prudent to realize that some sex offenders try to avoid the registration requirements by changing their names or by moving frequently. Therefore, to counter such cases, registrants must be asked to periodically appear in person at local law enforcement agencies to verify their information.
Also, law enforcement officers can assign community supervision officers who can help by verifying offender addresses for those under correctional supervision. These steps can help ensure that the policy is effectively enforced and also impress upon offenders that they are under continuous observation by the authorities.
In order for the sex offender registration policy to be effective, criminal justice officials must educate the community about sexual offending behavior. Valuable information can be imparted in public service or community meetings on how to protect themselves and their families from getting victimized. Such meetings can be conducted by law enforcement, probation and parole officers, victim advocates and others working with sex offenders. Additionally, community members can be provided with information that will help them:
Realize the risk and the importance of managing sex offenders in the community;
Understand the difference between the myths and facts concerning sex offenders and their victims;
Understand that there might be more sex offenders residing in the community who have not yet been caught (Risley 4);
Effectively use the available information to protect themselves from sex offenders; and
Recognize and express their fears, concerns and perceptions about sex offenders in the community.
Sex offender registration laws have become very common all across the United States. As can be realized, the goals of registration laws were to increase public safety, to prevent sex offenders from committing sex crimes in the future, and to provide law enforcement agencies with additional powers to investigate crimes thoroughly. Keeping in view all these goals, states have developed a number of effective approaches to sex offender registration. These can be augmented with other practices including the developing written policy and procedures; establishing a detailed registration process; collecting thorough information on registered sex offenders; allowing access to databases by to law enforcement officers; and developing systems to efficiently and effectively disseminate registration information within and across states so that offenders cannot break registration requirements. The most effective approach to sex offender registration would be the coordination and collaboration of efforts between all pertinent agencies involved in the process in order to prevent any future sexual victimization.
Lieb, R., Quinsey, V., and Berliner, L. Sexual Predators and Social Policy. In M. Tonry (Ed.) Crime and Justice, University of Chicago, IL. 1998.
Logan, Wayne A. “Liberty Interests in the Preventive State: Procedural Due Process and Sex Offender Community Notification Laws,” 89 J. CRIM. & CRIMINOLOGY 1167, 1167 (1999).
National Criminal Justice Association. Sex offender registries and community notification: States’ use of technology for public safety. Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: Author. 1998, Summer.
Risley, Henry. “Is Your Neighbor a Sex Offender?” Corrections Today Aug. 1997
Williams, Charles F. “Supreme Court Preview,” Social Education 66.6 (2002).