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Do sex offender registries stop sex crimes or falsely reassure?

In late 2011, a registered sex offender was found murdered in San Clemente. The perpetrator, just recently convicted of murder, told police “I like to try and protect my family.” There is no evidence the deceased ever had any contact with the perpetrator or his family.

With that in mind, a columnist for the Orange County Register recently looked into whether the registries created by Megan’s Law are effective at preventing sex crimes or an invitation to vigilante justice. His conclusion was even more troubling: sex offender registries may actually promote a dangerously false sense of security while bypassing the most likely suspects.

The Megan who inspired Megan’s Law was assaulted by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street and whom she did not know, but such as situation is actually highly unusual. The Megan’s Law website itself points out that 90 percent of child victims know their assailants, and nearly half of those assailants are family members.

The website also makes a point that calls a number of the registry’s restrictions into question -- including those prohibiting registrants from living within a half-mile of schools, parks and other places children congregate. Child sex abusers don’t hang out at parks and schools to grab kids, the website says. They are far more likely to molest children they have built relationships with.

While many people assume sex offenders are almost certainly a danger to others, that fear also seems to be exaggerated. While recidivism estimates vary, experts agree that fewer than 25 percent of convicted sex offenders ever go on to commit similar crimes.

Meanwhile, state and local governments have added an ever-growing list of restrictions on registrants. With Halloween coming up, you may be interested to know that the City of Orange now prohibits registered sex offenders from opening their doors to trick-or-treaters -- or even decorating for Halloween. The ordinance initially required them to post a large sign saying “no candy or treats at this residence.”

Are such restrictions actually accomplishing the goal of reducing sex crimes against children? If not, they might be promoting a false sense of security in the public while senselessly tormenting people who have served their debt to society and aren’t very likely to reoffend. At worst, they may turn the vigilant eyes of parents away from the seemingly trustworthy people who pose the most danger to their children.

Source: Orange County Register, "Whiting: A misplaced focus on sex offenders," David Whiting, Oct. 21, 2013

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