UNITED STATES: No easy answers - sex offender laws in the US

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[NEW YORK, 12 September 2007] – Laws aimed at people convicted of sex offences may not protect children from sex crimes but do lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.

Human Rights Watch urges the reform of state and federal registration and community notification laws, and the elimination of residency restrictions, because they violate basic rights of former offenders.

The 146-page report, “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States,” is the first comprehensive study of US sex offender policies, their public safety impact, and the effect they have on former offenders and their families. During two years of investigation for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted over 200 interviews with victims of sexual violence and their relatives, former offenders, law enforcement and government officials, treatment providers, researchers, and child safety advocates.

“Human Rights Watch shares the public’s goal of protecting children from sex abuse,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the US programme at Human Rights Watch. “But current laws are ill-conceived and poorly crafted. Protecting children requires a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach than politicians have been willing to support.”

In many states, registration covers everyone convicted of a sexual crime, which can range from child rape to consensual teenage sex, and regardless of their potential future threat to children. Unfettered public access to online sex-offender registries with no “need-to-know” restrictions exposes former offenders to the risk that individuals will act on this information in irresponsible and even unlawful ways.

Measures 'counterproductive'

There is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence. Residency restrictions banish former offenders from entire towns and cities, forcing them to live far from homes, families, jobs and treatment, and hindering law-enforcement supervision. Residency restrictions are counterproductive to public safety and harmful to former offenders.

Sex offender laws reflect public concern that children are at grave risk of sexual abuse by strangers who are repeat offenders. As the report documents, however, the real risks children face are quite different: government statistics indicate that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members or trusted authority figures, and by someone who has not previously been convicted of a sex offence.

In addition, the laws reflect the widely shared but erroneous belief that “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” Authoritative studies indicate that three out of four adult offenders do not reoffend. Moreover, treatment can be effective even for people who have committed serious sex crimes.

“Politicians didn’t do their homework before enacting these sex offender laws,” said Sarah Tofte, US programme researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead they have perpetuated myths about sex offenders and failed to deal with the complex realities of sexual violence against children.”

Further information

pdf: http://hrw.org/reports/2007/us0907/

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