Why do we have a sex offender registry?

While some registries existed long before they took hold at a national level, the major push for them came in conjunction with the passage of the federal Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994.  The passage of the Wetterling Act rode the wave of public horror over the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in 1989.  It received support and encouragement from Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother.  The new law required states to establish a registry of people who committed sexual offenses and crimes against children.  The sad irony of the law is that none of its provisions, nor those of any of a host of additional laws that have been layered upon this one, could have done anything to protect Jacob.  His attacker had no prior convictions for sexual offenses and had no reason to be on a registry.

Around the time the Wetterling Act was passed, another high-profile crime occurred.  Megan Kanka, age 7, was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had been previously convicted of two sex crimes involving young girls.  The case received considerable coverage by the media, and a host of politicians and law enforcement officials started to exploit the public furor to build the supposedly righteous cause of protecting children against “sex offenders”.  Megan’s Law was passed, requiring states to make registry information public.

Fear and hatred are very powerful emotions and politicians love to exploit them to achieve their political ends.  Nero used the Christians in first-century Rome.  Hitler used the Jews to rise to power in the 1930s.  McCarthy used the “commies” in the late 1940s and 50s.  In the 90s, so-called “sex offenders” became the new public menace, built on the stereotype of the abduction/murders and serial rapists who got so much media attention.  Politicians and law enforcement leaders fueled the public fear of the “monsters” and “predators” who were being put on the fledgling registries.  Legislators have since roped in anyone who has any offense remotely related to sex and put them on the registry for everything from public urination to pornographic pictures on computers to teen romances.  But the old stereotype of the child rapist is the one that sticks in everyone’s mind, seemingly cemented there by political and law-enforcement leaders constantly warning the public about how terribly dangerous “those people” are.  It is now a political tool.  Legislators add people to the registry and impose new restrictions on them to convince their constituents that they are working hard to “protect their children”.  Voting to soften or limit the registry is political suicide, with the next election cycle bringing hateful political ads, with opponents raging about how this irresponsible legislator has voted to “turn dangerous predators loose on the street” or “endanger your children” by relaxing restrictions on registrants.