California’s sex offender laws are among the strictest in the country. Even relatively minor sex offense convictions usually end up requiring a lifetime registration on the sex offender list. So what is a “relatively minor” sex offense you might ask. Well, consider the 18-year-old who is arrested for having consensual sex with a minor— that minor being his 16-year-old girlfriend. Or how about an adult of 19 who is convicted of making obscene and harassing phone calls to a minor, that minor being his younger brother’s friend and the acts, while immature, were done as a joke. While these acts and other similar crimes aren’t acts to be excused, they are hardly acts that suggest the offender poses a significant and lifetime risk of committing sex crimes. But that is how almost all so-called sex crimes are treated.
There are almost 100,000 sex offenders registered in California and this state is one of only four that requires a lifetime registration. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that more than a quarter of the sex crime registrants were minors at the time of the offense. According to the California Sex Offender Management Board, almost 900 of the registered sex offenders committed their last sex crime over 55 years ago. The strict requirements placed on sex offender registrants regarding where they can live has created an underclass marginalized by society.
How did the sex offender laws become so stringent in this country, and especially in this state? Even after serving the sentence for the crime, the sex offender is never relieved of the burden. The idea behind the registration laws is that sex offenders are likely to recommit sex crimes and therefore present an ongoing risk to society. But is this true?
Actually, according to the California Sex Offender Management Board approximately 95 percent of solved sex crimes are committed by people who are not on the registry. In other words, only 5 percent of the sex crime convictions are committed by persons who are registered as sex offenders. And that isn’t because most of the registered sex offenders are incarcerated. Approximately 20% of sex offender registrants are incarcerated, but most not for the sex offense. According to the California Corrections Department, most sex offenders (88%) who are incarcerated are in prison not for a sex crime but for parole violations or violations of the sex registration requirements. Less than 2% are incarcerated for committing a new sex offense. According the California Corrections Department’s own statement: “Offenders who are required to register as a sex offender are more likely to be recommitted to CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] for a new nonsex crime than for a new sex crime. ” And those sex offenders who are required to register have a higher recidivism rate than those offenders who are not required to register.
So what does this mean? The legal community is becoming increasingly aware that the sex offender registry does not result in a decrease in the number of sex offenses. The reasons for this are complex. In many, if not most, cases, the registrant is not a recalcitrant sex offender. In fact, the entrenched belief that sex offenders have a high sex offender recidivism rate is simply unfounded. Even so, the United States Supreme Court and many other courts of the land continue to express this view.
One legal scholar tracked the courts’ oft quoted statement that the “risk of recidivism posed by sex offenders” is “frightening and high.” Turns out this statement is pure fiction but has been repeated so many times it has become as if a fact. Recent scientifically controlled studies indicate that almost 70 percent of even the high-risk offenders never commit another sex crime and even more stunning, 95 percent of the low-risk offenders never commit another sex crime. Yet, here in California, many if not most of those low-risk offenders are required to register as a sex offender—with all the attendant restrictions that carries—for life.
The California Sex Offender Management Board has recommended to the Legislature that only those classified as high-risk offenders be required to register for life. But this is a political hot potato that no legislator wants to touch. The public, not understanding the nuances of the law and believing that once a sex offender, always a sex offender, will surely condemn any legislator who tries to reform these laws. You may not care, but if it was your teenaged son who ended up a lifetime sex offender registrant because he had consensual sex with his underage girlfriend or your friend who ends up on the registry for urinating in public (yes, it can happen), you might realize that the sex offender registry laws are in dire need of reform.