Thursday, June 16, 2016

SORNA: A Crash Course In Sex Offenders

What Is A Sex Offender?

Would you like the legal, popular, or therapeutic answer to that question? Legally, a sex offender is someone (juvenile or adult) who has committed a crime that mandates sex offender registration in the state the crime was committed. Some states refer to this as predatory offender registration, regardless of the circumstances surrounding each crime. There is no uniformity across all 50 states, or internationally, for what makes someone a sex offender.

Popularly, sex offender just refers to anyone who has committed a sex crime. The circumstances do not matter. If the media painted it a certain way, or what people hear is that it was a sex crime, it makes you a sex offender in most people's eyes. Therapeutically, anyone whose actions have traumatized someone else sexually make their actions a sex offense (as it was a behavior that sexually offended someone), and that is what a sex offender is.

Legal Distinctions: Registration And Notification

Registration generally refers only to the registration one is required to do for law enforcement. This type of registration is not public, and the information registered is only visible to law enforcement. This was the original idea behind the sex offender registry, to give law enforcement tools to investigate sex crimes. After all, the best people to look at, if one is looking at almost any other crime, are the people who have previously committed these crimes. Recidivism in general criminal population is very high, around 60-70%, sometimes lower or higher depending on the crime. Drug and property offenses remain high, where some violent crime, like murder and sexual crimes, are very low. You can swing by the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics if you want to look at some of the fascinating information the government collects about crimes.

However, what registration has now become is not just registering where an offender lives, what they look like, identifying characteristics, or where they work. Now, registration also has some control over traveling and who must be informed if an offender travels, some states require registering social media and internet accounts, and other requirements. For some, if their offense mandates it, law enforcement must notify the public if an offender moves within a community, or the offender becomes searchable on a public website. That is, anyone can look at a list of who committed which sex crime.

Other Legal Requirements

I have mentioned several times that some states have other legal requirements. Some require offenders to stay away from schools, parks, day cares, and other places where children gather. Some make not doing so punishable with additional felonies, some just recommend steering clear. Some states require registering any internet account whatsoever (banking, shopping, forums, social media... everything), while other states require only registering social accounts, like gaming, social media, forums, etc. Some states ban the use of any kind of social media, and some individual companies ban use of their services by sex offenders. Facebook,, and Eharmony are some examples. Some employers have an outright ban on sex offenders with an offense against a minor, or ban sex offenders outright.

Two Simple Diagrams

Sex offender is a label that means many, many things. Even "child sex abuser" or "child molester" are labels that mean many, many things. What I would like you to pay close attention to in this diagram are the right-middle cluster. Notice that there are three main groups: Sexual exploitation of children, which accounts for 66% of registered sex offender, those who are attracted to minors, or MAPs, and people who are at risk for committing a sex crime against a child, but have not yet acted.

I would also like to call your attention to the cluster in the bottom-left corner. People often use the term "sex offender" to refer to anyone who has committed a sex crime, whether or not they were convicted for one. This can mislead us into thinking that everyone who has committed a sex crime is registered as a sex offender. It also puts out of our mind the fact that teenagers and children can and do commit sex crimes. Some are registered, some are not. It also puts our of our minds the fact that there are people of all ages who are at risk for committing a sex crime, but have not yet acted.
This is where the real meat is. Frankly, there are many parts missing. Obviously, there are juvenile perpetrators who have and have not been caught, are and are not registered, as well as juvenile perpetrators who are and are not sexually attracted to children, juveniles who are at risk for a sex crime, and juveniles who have never been caught. That creates eight different groups that may have or not have any overlap. Eight categories that are not on here, just for juveniles. Then there are the different offenses, such as "child pornography" (CSEM) offenses, sexual abuse, producing CSEM, and child sex trafficking. For each one of those offenses, there are people who are and are not sexually attracted to children, are and are not registered, and are at risk for committing one of these offenses but has not yet. Some of these groups are noted.

My point, as I am quite sure you have realized by now, that describing who fits the definition of the label "sex offender" is extremely complicated and not simple at all. It is vitally important to understand that while the majority of sex offenders have committed crimes against children, most of these crimes are not the same and the minority of them are what we stereotypically think of (sexual penetration) when we think of child sexual abuse. Most of it is touching, flashing, viewing illicit sexual exploitation material (popularly known as child pornography), or some other minimal-contact offense. In some countries, it is illegal to even create cartoons depicting children in sexual situations, or read such cartoons.


There is no uniform punishment or sentencing guideline for sexual crimes. It is common in some places to be mandated to treatment and given probation, it is common in others to be given jail time and probation with no treatment requirement, it is common in still others to be sent to prison. Oh, and prison and jail are not the same thing. Jail is usually for a shorter period of time or while awaiting sentencing, whereas prison is for a longer period of time after sentencing has happened. There is also no uniformity for the sentence someone can get in relation to the number of crimes they have committed.

While research shows that treatment can cut recidivism (reoffending) in half, and also shows that sex offenders typically have a sexual recidivism rate around 13%, there is no requirement to get that treatment. In other words, there are methods to make sure that offenders are reintegrated into the community successfully, but these methods are not required. Some offenders are just left with nothing. No resources, no help, no treatment recommendations, just a release from wherever they are being held, with the expectation that they keep their noses clean.

Stigma And Barriers

Obviously, the sex offender label comes with a great amount of stigma and barriers to employment, housing, and romantic relationships. In some states, offenders are required to stay off social media, which in turn creates barriers for employment and relationships. Some dating websites, such as Eharmony and forbid sex offenders explicitly, or forbid anyone with a felony, from joining their site. These barriers, which seem to make sense (we do not want those filthy criminals near us and our communities, right?), can actually increase reoffending by denying an offender access to supports that can help them live a stable, productive life.

A Social Outcasting

In a nutshell, what America has done to sex offenders is socially outcast them. For a small minority of sex offenders, this is perfectly justified due to the actions of the offenders themselves: Some have repeated their crimes, and are generally a menace to society. But most are not, and they must pay the same penalty as the person who will inevitably reoffend. They are all treated the same: Sex offender.

The Bottom Line

Sex offender registration was a great concept in its original form: Allow law enforcement to track people who have committed certain crimes to give them better tools to investigate new crimes. Some people are worthy of that registration and we are well-justified in keeping tabs on them. But we have now slapped anyone who violates penal code number 8632313.1216 with the "sex offender" label, regardless of the circumstances of the crime, ages of the perpetrator and victim, amenability to treatment, remorse or lack thereof... the situation no longer matters. What matters is that someone was charged and convicted of a certain statute number and subsection that mandates registration.

Suffice it to say, I am against what SORNA has become, because it not only makes it harder for law enforcement officials to do their job, it creates new offenses that pose zero risk to anyone. Forget that you have that Paypal account? You failed to register properly, now you have another felony on your record for failing to register as a sex offender. Not only must law enforcement try to enforce registration upon the people with multiple offenses and truly fit the term "sexual predator", they must enforce the same for anyone who is mandated to register. The only thing that mandates that registration is the statute that was violated. There is no judge saying someone must register, that is only a notification at sentencing.

SORNA does not protect children from child sexual abuse. In its original concept as a law enforcement tool for repeat offenders, it could. But now, it has become worthless bureaucracy. Someone can commit a sexual crime on or off the registry. A piece of paper will not stop anyone from committing a sexual crime. Recognizing the harm in one's behaviors can. Being registered with law enforcement does not stop anyone from committing a sexual crime. Being stable and part of a supportive community can. SORNA is not about protecting children anymore. It is about exacting revenge over anyone that we think is sick or perverted, regardless of the situation.

So Who Supports SORNA?

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and many other victim advocacy groups (Abuse Stoppers, Parents For Megan's Law, for instance) have pushed for renewals to SORNA laws, both nationally and in individual states. The very people who proclaim their purpose to be the cessation of sexual crimes are supporting legislation that interferes with the prevention of these crimes. The protection of children is not as simple as protecting children, it has become political. That demands that people, like myself, who hate politics, become political to ensure that policies are being formed upon fact and sound research, not hype, advocacy, and public opinion. Children cannot be protected if we are forming laws based on myths. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to ensure a safe environment to discuss the issues and difficult content in this blog.