If you haven’t seen one recently, you soon will—a local media story about a registrant who lives within a mile of a school. The reporter interviews neighbors who say they want tougher registry and residency laws. The reporter conveys the impression that through their hard-hitting story, they’re speaking on behalf of victims everywhere.
The truth is quite the opposite. The real advocates for victims—the rape crisis centers and leaders of coalitions against sexual assault—want to see registry and residency laws stopped or rolled back. And increasingly they’re going public with their opposition. They say that ever-more punitive measures like these do nothing to deter sex crimes while pilfering money from needed prevention efforts and victims services.
The head of one state coalition against sexual assault I talked to last month is no peacenik when it comes to sexual violence. Her group supported increased criminal penalties for sexual contact between teachers and students and for distributing indecent pictures of someone without their permission.
But she also wants her state to focus on research-based approaches to stopping sexual abuse and assault. She told me that sex offender registries are a bad idea. They give people the impression that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by strangers—the reverse of the truth since nearly all abuse is done by family members or trusted acquaintances. “What about residency restrictions?” I asked her. “Totally illogical,” she replied. (I can’t use her name here because I may be quoting her in a future story.)
The head of another state sexual assault prevention coalition who didn’t want her name used told me in an interview last year that she and most in the sexual violence prevention field don’t believe sex offender registries and residency restrictions work.
And the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape did an interview in March in which she said sex registries are “not laws that are going to actually produce safety” and said that the money spent on them could be going to sexual abuse prevention programs that actually work.
Meanwhile, programs to prevent sexual abuse prevention and support survivors are starving for money. A 2013 survey of rape crisis centers found that more than a third have waiting lists for services like counseling and support groups. Three out of four didn’t have enough money to run their prevention programs, and three-quarters had had their funding cut in the previous year. More than half said they’d had to lay off staff.
In Utah, officials from the state crime lab reported in January that only about 30 percent of rape kits are submitted by law enforcement for testing. In 2014, the Utah legislature turned down requests for an annual increase of $600,000 a year in ongoing funding for rape kit testing. In California, a 2014 report by the state legislature’s own sex offender policy board concluded that while the state’s municipal governments spend $24 million administering state sex offender registries and residency restrictions, the state contributes all of $45,000 to programs for victims of sexual violence statewide.
When someone on a state registry moves to a neighborhood, local media often treat it as a scandal and push authorities to make life tough for them or force them to move. But in most states, policymakers are failing to do the basics to prevent sex crimes in the first place. That’s the real scandal.