Does Virginia’s sex offender registry need reform?
Raising fear, to no effect
By Mary Devoy
Devoy, of Mechanicsville, has been a volunteer advocate for data-driven reform of Virginia’s sex offender registry and laws since 2008.
Most Virginians would say there are more rapists and molesters today than 15 years ago. They would be wrong.
Approximately 15 years ago, victims’ rights groups and lawmakers began lowering the threshold of what is defined as a sex crime, making the standards of guilt easier, increasing and expanding punishment, tying the hands of judges with mandatory minimums and giving too much power to prosecutors.
Vengeance over justice became the standard. No one dared question these changes or asked for data to support them, fearing they’d be perceived as dishonoring crime victims.
When sex offender registries were created, politicians claimed their very existence would prevent crimes and victimization. Have they?
A plethora of research over the last 12 years by experts in the field have concluded the registries have not lowered the number of crimes nor the rate of recidivism. Nor have they made the public feel safer. In reality, the registries keep the public in a perpetual state of suspicion, fear and watchfulness, with no tangible results.
Virginia has dehumanized an entire class of society, making them public spectacles, monsters of no value. This rationalizes and endorses destruction as opposed to healing and growth. Successful re-entry for offenders — including housing, education, employment and family life — becomes practically impossible.
Every offender is painted with the same broad brush. An 18-year-old who had consensual sexual contact with a 16-year-old suffers the same restrictions as a rapist who assaulted a stranger. After serving lengthy prison sentences, each is listed for life on our registry as a violent offender, convicted of rape, sodomy, object sexual penetration or carnal knowledge of a minor.
Are they equal? Do both deserve the scarlet letter or state monitoring for the next 30, 40 or 60 years? No, they don’t.
Every year, 850 to 1,300 new Virginians (an average of 20 per week) are added to our registry, and fewer than 50 are removed. In December 2008, one of every 202 adult males was registered; in December 2012, the number grew to one of 159. By late 2018, we’ll reach one of every 100. Eventually, every Virginian will know someone bearing this scarlet letter.
There can be an even-handed approach — protecting the public, informing people of who might be a threat and allowing for successful re-entry to the majority who want to be productive citizens. It just takes careful consideration and actually listening to experts in the field.
It is possible to protect society from sexual harm, while preserving civil liberties and genuine justice. Lawmakers, if directed, could construct targeted laws against harmful acts, not classes of people. Which delegates and senators will find the required inner strength to take on this polarizing issue to reform, and restore integrity, to our registry?
Why sex offender registries work
By Bill Stanley
Stanley, of Franklin County, is state senator for the 20th District and Republican majority whip. He has sponsored legislation in the General Assembly to ensure Virginia’s compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.
Sex offender registries are relatively new legal instruments used by states, including Virginia, in the war against sexual predators. Nationwide, the number of registered sex offenders has increased at an alarming rate, from 606,816 in 2006 to 747,408 today.
One only has to watch the nightly news to see that sexual offenses by predators are on the rise. With the advent of the Internet, these criminals now have access to illicit materials that further their criminal desires. And the Wworld Wwide Wweb now provides a gateway into our homes through our computers, where these criminals can gain access to our children.
Consider these disturbing facts: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, on any given day there are approximately 234,000 sex offenders who were previously convicted of a sex crime, who are now under the custody or control of state or federal corrections agencies in the U.S.; the median age of the victims of these predators was less than 13 years old; in this group of offenders, approximately 21 percent of those currently confined for either rape or sexual assault had been on parole or probation at the time they committed their offense; and, after their release, the recidivism rate of sex offenders for subsequent criminal offenses of all types is nearly 43 percent. Shockingly, of those released sex offenders who were accused of another sex crime, 40 percent were arrested within a year of their release.
The federal Adam Walsh Act of 2006 requires all 50 states to maintain sex offender registries, and details who must register (and what sex offenses qualify for registration), how long they remain on the registry, and what information of the offender must be maintained.
Virginia’s registry is maintained by the state police and Department of Corrections. Persons on the list have been convicted of certain sex crimes, as defined in Virginia’s criminal code, that require registration as a part of their punishment. With few exceptions, once sex offenders are put on this registry, they are on it permanently.
This public registry details the home location of each released sex offender throughout the commonwealth. The registry serves multiple purposes, including deterring sex offenders from reoffending, and providing access to valuable information for both law enforcement agencies and the general public.
The sex offender registry is an evolving program, and admittedly, the registry is not the be-all -and -end-all in the battle to deter and punish sex crimes. A; but as it is further developed and refined in its continuing evolution by the Virginia legislature and law enforcement, it will remain an important tool in keeping our fellow citizens and our children safe from sexual predators both now, and in the future.