What You May Not Know About Sex Offender Registries

Newspapers across the nation and around the world are filled with the unspeakable accounts of young people being abducted, sexually abused, and in a growing number of cases murdered by a sex offender. These reports have caused parents and guardians of children to be concerned for the safety of their children but many have a false sense of security because they believe that if a sex offender moves into the neighborhood, police will beat on the door announcing the offender’s presence. The truth is that most people will not even receive a letter.

You may be frantically thinking, “Wait a minute! What about Megan’s Law? Doesn’t that authorize someone to let me know about a convicted sex offender living near me?”

Yes, it does authorize that the information be released.

The federal version of Megan’s Law was signed on May 17, 1996 by President Bill Clinton. While this law does require every state to release information about sexual predators, it does not require law enforcement to actively notify the community with any information about sex offenders living in the area. They are only required to make the information available and it is up to each state to define how the information is supplied.

Many states have searchable sex offender databases online, some have a sex offender list, and some require a phone call before information is released. It is nearly always up to the members of the community to request the information about sex offenders in their area.

The sex offender registries are a very important resource but there are things that you may not know about the registration process and the information about the offenders who have committed sex related crimes.

In the United States there are almost one million convicted sex offenders whose crimes were serious enough to require them to register in the state where their offenses occurred or in the community where they reside. More than half of all convicted sex offenders are not behind bars but are living in our neighborhoods after being paroled or signing a probation agreement.

There are not always laws that restrict where a sex offender chooses to live. They reside in metropolitan areas and rural communities as well as in in high-poverty areas and in affluent neighborhoods. They may live near schools and day care centers and one may be your next door neighbor.

Sadly, many of those arrested for sexually assaulting a child have a prior criminal history that includes other sex related charges but we are not aware of these charges. This means that not all people convicted of a sex crime are listed in the state registry. As disturbing as it may sound, not all sex related crimes are considered serious enough to obligate the state to make that information available to the public through the sex offender registry.

Each state has specific definitions and laws regarding which crimes will require an offender to register. In many areas, the offender is also evaluated on a three tier scale according to the level of risk he poses to the residents of that community. There are also instances where the crime was committed prior to the date when the state laws went into effect so those convicted prior the that date will not be in the registry. The information that the states provide is available online as a searchable database at Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

There are three levels of sex offender classifications used by most states to determine an offender’s risk to the community. These classifications are often determined by law enforcement officials, prosecutors, or the courts. Some of the factors used to classify sex offenders include the number of sex related convictions, the offender’s relationship to the victim, the age of the victim, and whether or not the offender used threats of violence during the course of the victimization.

  • Level 1 sex offenders are considered the least dangerous. They are determined to have a low likelihood of re-offending and many are first time offenders. This classification makes up the majority of the sex offenders in our society and information about them and the crimes they have committed is usually not available to the public. The victims of these offenders are frequently family members or others living in the home of the offender. The level 1 offenses are not considered violent or predatory and the offender is usually participating in or has successfully completed a treatment program.
  • Level 2 sex offenders have a moderate likelihood of re-offending and are considered somewhat of a threat to the community. They generally have more than one victim and the abuse occurred over a lengthy period of time. These offenders usually groom their victims and may use threats of violence to commit their crimes. These crimes may be considered predatory with the offender using a position of trust to gain control over the victim. Typically, these individuals do not have any empathy for their victims and rarely take any responsibility for their actions. These offenders often refuse or fail to complete an approved treatment program. The public may have access to information regarding the level 2 offenders through the local police department or through the sex offender registry.
  • Level 3 sex offenders are highly likely to re-offend. The offenses are likely to be predatory in nature and pose a potentially serious threat to our communities. Offenders in this category are likely to have multiple offenses and their crimes are usually very violent. This type of offender is likely to suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder. He or she is likely to have refused or failed an approved treatment program. Information about these offenders is usually available to the public. The information disclosed about the level 3 offender usually includes a photograph of the subject, a physical description, and a brief narrative of the subject’s sex crime and other criminal history.

The information that is in the state’s sex offender registry is often verified by sending out a letter to each offender on an annual or bi-annual basis requiring a response from the offenders. In some areas, there is an actual visit to by law enforcement to the offender’s residence of record to verify that the offender is still there but in many jurisdictions law enforcement does not have the manpower to visit the tens of thousands of offenders under their supervision. There are also instances of homeless sex offenders that are difficult to monitor.

Nearly all sex offender registry web sites have disclaimers warning the public about the accuracy of information in the individual registries. Unfortunately, sex offenders frequently relocate and fail to notify the proper authorities of their whereabouts. Law enforcement agencies do make it a priority to verify the locations of registered sex offenders but it is nearly impossible to always have an exact location on every single offender in each jurisdiction. Extreme care must be used when attempting to identify a particular person based solely on a name or an address. Just because Jon Doe is listed at 123 Any St, does not mean that he is in fact the resident at that location. It is equally important to realize that there may be an offender who just moved into a home in your neighborhood and has not updated his or her information in the registry. Thousands of sex offenders in each state either fail to register after being convicted and ordered to to so or fail to update their information even though required to do so by law.

Knowing who is or is not listed in your state’s sex offender registry is only one step to protecting your children from sexual abuse. In addition to being aware of the sex offenders living in your community, there are many other things to consider.

Most offenders have at least an “acquaintance type” relationship with their victims prior to the abuse. Know who has access to your children and visit your state web site for information about how to check criminal records before hiring a babysitter or other domestic help.