Sex registries are in the news again thanks to a couple of high-profile child sex abuse cases. (Think multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein and singer R. Kelly) Keeping track of ex-cons who have sexually preyed on others sounds like a good idea. But do these registries of convicted sex criminals really help keep us safe?
Under a 2006 federal law each state, the District of Columbia, Native American tribes and U.S. territories were required to set up a tracking system for newly released sex offenders.
General information about the offenders and their crimes is easily available online for the public to read. This can be especially useful for those active on the dating scene and parents of young children who want to know more about the new neighbor.
But, it is important to understand that many registries are bloated with names that probably shouldn’t be there. Public urination, streaking or sex between consenting teenagers can land a person on the registry. A man involved in a nasty divorce and falsely accused by an ex can find himself locked into years on a registry. Children as young as 8 have been added, sometimes for innocent contacts like hugs or kisses. In Colorado, a 15-year-old boy identified as T.B. was found guilty of sexually exploiting children after he sent a nude selfie to two girls, aged 15 and 17, and they reciprocated. TB was required to register as a sex offender for at least 20 years. That law has now been changed so teenaged sexting is no longer a felony but it’s too late for T.B.. His educational and vocational life has been stunted by his foolish teenage act.
Another problem? There is no uniformity to these registries. Some states have stringent rules about where an ex-offender can live and work. A sex abuser of children, for example, will likely be prohibited from residing with a relative who has kids or live near a school, playground or attend a church where children worship. In some states each routine check-in is followed by officers blanketing their neighborhood with flyers showing the registrant’s photo, address, car license plate and age of their victim. On Halloween some states require the convicted to post a sign in their window warning children not to knock.
But some states may impose no restrictions on ex-con sex offenders aside from requiring they appear for routine check-ins. These state-by-state differences mean crafty, habitual predators can game the system by simply moving to a more tolerant location.
The uber-wealthy Epstein, for example, originally registered as a Tier Three offender in two states where he had homes, Florida and New York. But when he was ordered to report to Manhattan authorities every 90 days he deftly changed his primary residence from New York to his home in the Virgin Islands where there was no supervision. He reportedly frequented his 7,500-acre ranch in Stanley, New Mexico for the same reason.
Kelly, on the other hand, was never required to sign up for a sex registry even though allegations that he engaged in sex with girls as young as 12 have dogged him for decades. His 2008 trial on charges that he produced video child porn with a young girl was delayed by defense lawyers for six years and, ultimately, ended in an acquittal. This past February, more than a decade after he dodged prosecution, Kelly was indicted in Chicago on 10 counts of sex abuse of four victims. He was out on bail when the feds swooped in last week with a 13-count indictment charging Kelly, 52, with child sexual exploitation, kidnapping, forced labor and racketeering. He is now in custody.
The point, of course, is that all the sex registries in the world are not going to stop the most prolific sexual predators, the very ones we should focus on. And the rich and famous sex abusers, arguably the most dangerous of all, will always find a loophole to indulge their obsessions. Epstein, reportedly, continued to abuse young teen girls while he served jail time, his highly unusual 12-hour daytime work release allowed him to go home each day to his Florida mansion.
It is way past time for authorities to take a second look at these registries, cull the names of those who truly pose no danger to society and crack down on those obvious predators (and their slick lawyers) determined to beat the system.