Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

To many, “sex offender” conjures a specific image: stranger abduction, child victim, sexual assault, murder. Such horrible things do happen but’s it extraordinarily rare. It’s so horrible that it makes the news. And it happens so rarely that it makes the news every time it happens, and when it happens it shakes us to our core.

In the US, in the wake of the murders of Adam Walsh, Jacob Wetterling, Megan Kanka, Jessica Lunsford and others, states passed various pieces of memorial legislation named for these victims (Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and so on). Fast-forward to the present day and that nation’s publicly available sex offender register is about to reach one million people.

The outcome of these laws has irreparably distorted what constitutes a “sex offender”. The unfortunate and unintended consequences of this legislation are far-reaching and permanent. Those individuals branded with this label include the handful of (mostly) men who have been convicted of abhorrent sexual crimes against stranger children. But it also includes a 34-year-old Florida mother convicted of indecent exposure for publicly breastfeeding and a Massachusetts man who was 18 when he had a consensual sexual relationship with his girlfriend who was just shy of 16 at the time. It’s gone too far.

 These laws have left prisons overcrowded, families devastated, victims publicly identified, survivors re-traumatised, and communities fractured. It has widened the net far beyond what is reasonable or useful. Extending correctional supervision so far beyond custody constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. We now know that sexual recidivism rates are quite low – drug abusers and burglars are much more likely to reoffend upon release than someone who has committed a serious sexual offence.
Furthermore, our law-enforcement personnel work with finite and limited resources, and their focus should remain on the detection, investigation, and apprehension of active criminals – not on keeping track of tens of thousands of people, many wrongly identified, or with decades-old convictions for isolated offences.

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