In Defense of Rational Sex Offender Public Policy and Laws

By Christopher Zoukis

The past several weeks I have been researching the sex offender laws applicable for sex offenders living in Rhode Island and in South Carolina.  While not surprising, the laws are anything but rational and they are certainly not empirically based.  This goes across the board, not merely in Rhode Island or South Carolina but at both the state and federal levels.

The Adam Walsh Act of 2006 requires sex offenders to be classified in one of three tiers of supervision.  Tier 1 sex offenders have lighter restrictions placed upon them (e.g., report to their sheriff’s department every year, most likely be on the public sex offender registry, and comply with any state or local residency requirements), while Tier 3 sex offenders have extraordinarily onerous restrictions (e.g., report to their sheriff’s department every 90 days, possibly be placed on GPS monitoring, have regular in-home and at work spot inspections, etc.).

On its face it looks as if sex offenders are monitored — and have restrictions — according to their risk of reoffense.*1  After all, there are distinct qualifications for each tier assignment.*2  But what is the difference between a Tier 1, Tier 2, and a Tier 3 sex offender?  The answer to this, not surprisingly, is not much.  There are some differences in offense conduct or frequency, but not many.  To put this in context, there are very few Tier 1 sex offenders compared to the number of Tier 2 sex offenders.  And there are fewer Tier 3 sex offenders than Tier 2 sex offenders.  But most sex offenders are merely grouped together in the second tier category.

If we accept that most sex offenders will be placed in Tier 2, with those particular restrictions and registration protocols, then we are also accepting that the one-size-fits-most view be employed.  This results in a dilution of effective sex offender community monitoring.  Essentially, those with a higher risk and those with a lower risk, who are clumped into Tier 2 sex offender registration and monitoring requirements, will receive the same level of community monitoring, outpatient treatment, and communal notification.  This seems like a foolhardy public policy decision, from both a public safety and fiscal perspective.

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