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Sex offender laws have unintended consequences

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Sex offender notice
Residents in a Minneapolis neighborhood are notified of a Level 3 sex offender moving in.
MPR file photo/Art Hughes

Convicted sex offenders are required to register with police, making it easier for law enforcement agencies to keep track of sex offenders in their community. 

Many states have expanded on that idea, posting sex offenders pictures and addresses on the Internet. Some, like Minnesota, post only the offenders deemed most dangerous, while others put every sex offender's picture on a Web site. 

The reasoning is, if you know where sex offenders live, you're safer.

TEENAGE SEX LEADS TO SEX OFFENDER STATUS

Ricky is one of the sex offenders whose picture is on the Internet. Even though he's publicly listed as a sex offender, he asked we not use his last name because he fears harassment. Ricky was 17, living in a small town in Iowa, when he had sex with a 13-year-old girlfriend.  

"I was playing a game of pool when I met her. She came up and we started talking. I asked her her age and she told me she was 16," says Ricky. "So we went out and danced, started dating. And we ended up having sex twice."

A few months later, when the girl ran away from home, Ricky was questioned by police. 

"I just told them the truth because I didn't think I was going to get in trouble. I told them I had sex with her twice," says Ricky. "He told me the parents were not pressing charges, so we're just going to go ahead and let you go home."

But a few days later Ricky was arrested and charged with two counts of felony sexual abuse. He faced up to 20 years in prison.

Ricky pled guilty to a lesser charge and was placed on probation, ordered to get sex offender treatment and register as a sex offender. A few months later his family moved to Oklahoma, where his picture was posted on the Internet as a sex offender. 

"THIS WILL ALWAYS HAUNT HIM"

Ricky was kicked out of school, and must stay away from schools and parks.  He's been working with a tutor and hopes to get his GED.

Ricky says he'd planned to join the Navy, go to college and become a police officer. Now he works at an assembly plant, and isn't sure what he'll do next. 

Six Flags policy to target sex offenders
Looking to protect park visitors, Six Flags theme parks now have information printed on the back of their season passes regarding sex offenders' rights on visiting their parks. It states Six Flags reserves the right to deny admission of anyone convicted of a sex crime, or anyone required to be registered as a sex offender.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

"I get frustrated at times because I can't do what a kid wants to do. I'm basically stuck," says Ricky. "My friends go out and do stuff. I can't go with them. I can't play basketball or football with them. I just go to work, come home and try to just do stuff around the house." 

"He's constantly watching his back," says Mary Duval, Ricky's mother. "He doesn't know if the next person who walks up on him is going to know he's a sex offender, and what they'll do or what they're going to say."  

Duval says she believes her son should have been punished for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. But she's angry he's painted with the same brush as a violent predatory rapist. 

"He won't date. He won't talk to girls. A girl says 'Hi' to him in the store -- and I have seen him twice bail out of the store and lock himself inside our pickup. He just says, 'I'm scared,'"  says Duval. "The damage that's being done by making him register as a sex offender is long term. This will always haunt this kid."

There are likely hundreds of faces like Ricky's mixed in with the dangerous sex offenders on public registries. 

POLICIES DRIVEN BY ANGER AND FEAR

Patty Wetterling says it's an example of sex offender laws that go too far. Wetterling has been a vocal advocate for laws to protect children since her son Jacob was abducted 18 years ago. He's never been found. 

Wetterling says it's easy to just get tough on sex offenders, but she's tired of tough. 

Frontrunner?
Patty Wetterling says she's tired of lawmakers simply trying to be tough on all sex offenders, instead of treating juvenile offenders differently.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Everybody wants to out-tough the next legislator. 'I'm tough on crime,' 'No, I'm even more tough.' It's all about ego and boastfulness," says Wetterling. 

Wetterling says she wants public policy to be effective.  She says broad sweeping laws that treat all offenders the same waste resources and lives. 

Wetterling recently met a 10-year-old boy going through sex offender treatment. She says the boy was sexually abused, and later was convicted of abusing a young cousin. 

"He finishes his sex offender treatment program and then he goes home to another state, and his picture is on the Internet while he goes back to middle school. What are the odds that kid could ever make it?" says Wetterling. 

"We have to treat juveniles differently.  It just doesn't make sense," adds Wetterling.  "We're setting up an environment that's not healthy. It's just anger driven, anger and fear. It's not smart, and it doesn't get us to the promised land."

Conventional wisdom is that increasing public awareness of individual sex offenders will reduce sex crimes.

RESEARCHER: LAWS ARE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

"Overall, we don't have very much evidence to support the idea that knowing where sex offenders live actually protects children, or reduces the number of sex crimes in our communities," says Jill Levenson, author of "The Emperor's New Clothes," an examination of sex offender policy. 

Levenson teaches at Lynn University in Florida, and compares sex offender laws with research to see if the laws are making a difference.

"The damage that's being done by making him register as a sex offender is long term. This will always haunt this kid."

Levenson says telling the public where the most dangerous sex offenders live might help prevent crime. But she says posting every offender's picture is counterproductive. 

"When you're looking at a sex offender registry online, and you see a pedophile with several arrests and many, many victims, right next to a picture of the 19-year-old with the 15-year-old girlfriend. It becomes very difficult for the public to differentiate and know who's truly dangerous, and how to protect themselves from those people," says Levenson.

In many states, community notification has  expanded to include restrictions on where sex offenders can live, or requiring all sex offenders to wear electronic monitors, despite evidence those sex offender management tools don't work well when broadly applied. 

Jill Levenson says the research is clear -- making outcasts of sex offenders often makes them more dangerous. 

"They need to have a place to live, they need to be able to get jobs.  They need to be able to support themselves and their families," says Levenson. "And without those things, they're going to be more likely to resume a life of crime. That's not a debate, that's a fact."

Ricky says he knows what it feels like to be an outcast. His picture has been posted in the local grocery store, he can't hang out with his teenage friends, and his family has moved twice because of harassment.

Jill Levenson
Professor Jill Levenson says many popular sex offender laws are not effective.
Photo Courtesy Jill Levenson

Mary Duval says being publicly identified as a sex offender has changed her son's life. She worries telling his story publicly might bring a backlash.  But she wants lawmakers to know what happened to a teenager who made a mistake. 

"I know tons of parents on the Internet with boys similar to mine, and they're scared," says Duval. "I've been advised not to talk to reporters, not to speak out, because it could bring bad things to my family or Ricky.  I refuse to be silent. I'm going to fight this and fight this, until someone listens." 

Mary Duval is fighting one of the unintended consequences of getting tough on sex offenders. 

A sex offender label means many see her son as dangerous, likely to re-offend, and someone who probably can't be rehabilitated. Those are among the common perceptions held by legislators who write sex offender laws. 

Experts say applying the same laws to Ricky and a violent predatory rapist makes for bad public policy.