We’ve all heard of the Jacob Wetterling case: young boy on his bike is taken by a stranger, never to be seen again. It’s a terribly sad story, and one that got a lot of media and legislative attention because Jacob’s mother, Patty, has been incredibly vocal about her son and the need for a change in laws. Patty was there when President Clinton signed Megan’s Law, which requires States give registered sex offender information to the public. Prior to that, Patty started the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which requires every State keep a list of sex offenders and their residences after prison. A few years after the enactment of Megan’s Law, Patty helped enact another law, which would concern civil commitment, require registration of children 14 years of age and older who were convicted of a sex crime, and be retroactive, meaning people who had committed a sex crime prior to this new law would also be subject to its provisions. This law is called the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act, signed by President Bush.
Patty is only one among many parents of child abduction victims, but she has been one of the most well-known. She has seen the laws becoming increasingly strict on sex offenders across the country, most of the laws having been introduced as a response to infamous crimes. Now, Patty is wondering if the laws have become too harsh on sex offenders.
Studies have found that sex offenders have a low rate of recidivism and are generally related to their victims, either by blood or some other close relationship. Child abductions by strangers are actually quite rare, though they are the ones that make the news.
Laws across the country require registration of sex offenders, but the term “sex offender” can mean a wide variety of things, all of which could require registration. For example, teenagers having sex though they both consent, public urination, and solicitation of adult prostitutes are just a few crimes that some States have required registration as a sex offender. Registration as a sex offender has an extreme impact on the offender’s life. It is not just putting your name on a list. Usually, it restricts where you can live (a certain distance away from a school, for example), which often separates the offender from his support system of family and friends or drives the offender into homelessness. It also carries a negative impact in careers. Think of the problems most people have with a DWI or a misdemeanor on their records. Being a registered sex offender is much worse. Juveniles are also subject to these laws – schooling, employment, and living arrangements are often ruined with the registration laws. Juveniles are also amenable to treatment and often have just made a childish mistake.
Patty, looking at these laws, has not softened on crime. She still believes that people like the one who abducted her young son need to be punished. But the laws have become too encompassing, she thinks. She thinks of juveniles or even some adults that simply made a mistake, did something stupid. She separates those types of offenders from the ones that would do what Jacob’s abductor did. People had started writing to Patty, sharing the harm the laws have had on their families. These laws were hurting people that she realized did not deserve it, such as a juvenile who had sex with a girl who lied about her age, a father who committed a sex crime as a teenager but who had to register many years later after the retroactive law, and others who had completely changed their lives around. Patty was able to separate these offenders from others who were more like the one that took Jacob. Patty started thinking that the registries, that require so many people to register, make it hard to determine who the real dangerous offenders are.
It is not that she believes the laws don’t do some good. It is that they have become such blanket requirements, that they are affecting some offenders that don’t deserve it. Further, Patty’s goal is not to just punish. It is to solve the problem and stop the crimes from happening in the first place.