Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Victims Don’t Support Sex Offender Registries Either

Scholarly research on out-of-the way topics often suffers the fate of the talented actor stuck on a Shakespearean stage in London—the attention the public pays bears no relationship to the quality of the product.

Last year’s book compilation of studies on sex crime policy Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions belongs in that category. Each chapter is written by a leading researcher in the field under the editorship of Richard Wright, who chairs Bridgewater State University’s Department of Criminal Justice.

The book has gotten no mention in the press. You might dismiss this as just another case of research that lacked a lapel-grabbing angle for editors. But that’s wrong: if nothing else, it deserves attention for a startling chapter that should change our assumptions about whom our harsh sex crime policies benefit.

In that piece, Simpson College researcher Rachel Kate Bandy describes a study unlike anything done before—she asked victims and their advocates what they think of current sex crime policies. Specifically, she interviewed 21 sexual assault and sexual abuse victims and the heads of five state sexual assault coalitions, who work to treat current victims and prevent future sexual violence.

All were asked about their views of current sex crime policy. Here’s a summary of what this slice of victims and victim advocates say are the results of the tilt in sex crime policies toward ever-harsher punishments:

Less reporting of sexual abuse. Two sexual assault coalition representatives interviewed said that “sex offender laws like residency restrictions and juvenile offender registration have inadvertently created a disincentive for victims to disclose. One noted that “We’re predicting a decrease in reporting due to the various sex offender laws.… [The laws] disallow discretion and discretion is needed.… [Sex offending] disrupts the entire family.… There needs to be a middle ground. We’ve lost focus on treatment and only focus on punishment.” Kate Bandy summarizes: “Because legal sanctions have been elevated in profound ways for almost every sexual offense category, some victims and their families are hesitating to disclose because they fear that there are no intermediate interventions available.”

More plea bargains, fewer guilty pleas. Accompanying that reluctance to report are perpetrators who are less willing to take guilty pleas. “As a byproduct [of these laws]… victims receive less or no supportive services, and perpetrators go untreated and unaccountable,” Bandy writes. One of the sexual assault coalitions noted “an increase in defense attorneys counseling their clients to refuse plea bargains and/or guilty pleas ‘because the stakes are so high.’”

Wasted resources. Bandy describes some of the more prominent sex offender laws to her interviewees–Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, the Adam Walsh Act, and so forth. As she reports, “several subjects nodded to acknowledge familiarity with what these laws attempt to accomplish. Others rolled their eyes, seemingly in exasperation. Tammy, a 41-year-old, stay-at-home mother who was molested repeatedly by her father, explained her dissatisfaction with laws that attempt to restrict where a sex offender can live: ‘I get why people care about where an offender lives. I’ve got kids and I care, but my offender lived in my house. No law was going to change that—at least not one that was being enforced.’” Two sexual assault coalition representatives said that “the general expansion in size and scope of sex offender laws was unnecessary, that the laws that already existed were sufficient—they were simply poorly implemented.” They told Bandy that they were well aware of a fact that repeatedly escapes notice by policymakers: “These expensive [sex crime] laws have demonstrated little to no discernible impact on reducing recidivism.”

A public ill informed about where the real danger lies. Because of laws like sex offender registries and residency restrictions, Bandy writes, “several [sexual assault] coalitions believe that the public is actually less safe from sexual abuse.” By drawing public attention and scrutiny toward the most egregious offenders and offenses, [these laws] detract attention and scrutiny from the most common type. It is this detraction that potentially decreases public safety and increases victimization risk.” One coalition representative summed it up well: “Vulnerability [for sexual abuse] is actually reinforced by these laws because it turns the attention [of the public and the criminal justice system] towards one-percent of the crime.” Another noted that “by focusing on the ‘stranger danger’ myth, people are less aware of a more likely assailant: a person they know.”

Elevation of certain types of victims over others. Bandy writes that her respondents were concerned that some sex offender laws have created a “victim hierarchy.” “Laws named in honor of certain sexual assault victims inadvertently prioritize the suffering of one victim type over the suffering of another,” she writes. “The victims for whom these laws have been named do not reflect the common story of victimization or victim type.… As a result, several [sexual assault coalition representatives] reported that they and the service providers they support have heard from victims that they do not see any ‘reflection of self’ in many of the sex offender laws.”

Diversion of resources from victims’ services. Bandy notes that several coalition representatives interviewed reported that “there are fewer resources available to service providers because the majority of state funds earmarked to address sexual violence focus on offenders, not victims.” One noted that “an enormous number of resources are used for initiatives such as offender GPS tracking, with absolutely no corresponding increase in material support for victim services—yet these are the very laws named for victims: [Sex offender laws] have provided zero increase in support for victims in material forms. [These laws] didn’t add victim funds.… Victims have not benefited from most sex offender laws.…” Noted another, “The money for victim services is a drop in the bucket compared to the money for offenders.…”

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