At the beginning of the 1990s through to the 2000s sexual offences became a trendy topic of discussion within the sphere of legislative discourse and public dialogue. The contention surrounded the crafting of criminal legislation that would reduce recidivism of convicted sex offenders and overly reduce sexual offence cases. The initial innovations resulting from the discourse were twofold. These were the sex offender laws, which made it a statutory requirement that convicted sex offenders regularly provide crucial identification information and contacts to law enforcement authorities, upon conclusion of their incarceration; and sex offender notification laws, the latter being complementary to the registration requirement in that the data collected from the former could be made available to the public through specific searchable online databases. Sexual offender registration policies that allowed registries to become public, such as Megan’s Law and the Wetterling Act, were reinforced in 2006 with the passage of the Adam Walsh Act. This led to a proliferation of registries and notification requirements in more jurisdictions within the United States.
Whilst these laws (SORN laws) were largely state initiatives, starting with the State of California in 1947, the federal government of the United State authorized them one way or another from the mid-1990s with the end result that they now exist in all 50 states of the US. However, there are incongruent elements in these laws as enacted from state to state. Disparities can be found in registration requirements, what qualifies to be made public, and the definition of offences, more often in-line with other state laws. Considering that the explicit and exclusive goal of these laws is to reduce sex offender recidivism, it would be interesting to know the extent to which these laws are manifestly just or unjust. Studies done to gauge popularity of these laws often returned high level of approval. In one exemplar study, 95% of respondents agreed that the name and photograph of a registered sex offender ought to be available to the public.
Disparities within Sexual Offences
While the term ‘sex offender’ often refers to any criminal conduct that is so defined in law, conducts that constitute sexual offences are numerous. Moreover, the various ways that states define what constitutes a sex crime can attract unexpected complexity. To highlight the disparities in sexual offences let me take the state of California as a case study.
The Penal Code of California at sections 290 to 290.024 cites inclusively all the laws encompassed in the Sex Offender Registration Act. A detailed examination of this section shows serious intent to address sex offences. On the contrary; and in view of these strong requirements under section 290, section 647.6 should now be regarded as obsolete. The provisions that imposes fines not exceeding $5000 to those who annoy or molest others is too lenient compared to the developments under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
Sex offences under Megan’s Law for the State of California are numerous and rage from kidnapping for ransom (with intent to violate other section of the Penal Code), assault to commit rape, sodomy or oral copulation, sexual battery, touching intimately against will for sexual arousal and inducing sex by false misrepresentation, among others. The list of sexual offences is not this paper’s mandate, but it does give a glimpse of the diversity of what would count for a sexual offence in law. To get a better understanding of the classification, stakeholders opt to pool sex offences more succinctly into pedophiles, incest, juvenile sex offenders, date rapes, spousal rape and statutory rape. From this classification, there is a glaring disparity in the severity of the offences. It would be unfair to bundle a 21 year old that had consensual sex with a 15 year old in the same ‘cell’ with a pedophile. This, therefore, renders the term sex offender very general that it would be unjust to treat all offenders with an equal level of disdain.
Effective from 24 September 2004, the Penal Code of California section 290.46 required the Department of Justice to create a website for disclosing sex offenders under registration. Under this law, four categorizations of registered sex offenders were developed for the purpose of disclosure. These were Home Address Category, under some convictions, the offender’s home address and other information about the registrant would be posted. Conditional Home Address Category, convictions of other designated sex offences, along with the conviction of any other registrable sex offence, require that the home address be posted, along with other information be posted. ZIP Code Category, conviction for other offences require that ZIP Code details alongside other information be given but not including the home address be posted. Undisclosed Category, these are registered sex offenders whose details may not be listed on the website.
This is an explicit demonstration that sex offenders are not similar, law enforcement agencies and the society should learn not to treat them as though the two are similar. In a study conducted to investigate the types of sexual offenders that elicited the most self-reported fear and the propensity to agree with the need for registration, participants reported the highest fear for pedophiles and the least fear for statutory rapists. Proponents of the labeling theory also believe such similar treatment of all sex offenders have far reaching psychological effects that may perpetuate recidivism.
California Law. (2013, October 1). California Penal Code. San Franscisco , California . Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/calawquery?codesection=pen
Meyer, R., & Weaver, C. (2006). Law and Mental Health: A Case-based Approach. New York: Guilford Press.