Public Information or Not?

New laws could allow some sex offenders to deregister.

by / May 1, 2007
Sex Offender on the Prowl Illustration
Law enforcement admits there are many problems with the registration of sex offenders. First off, not all of them register. And the ones who do are hard to track.

But would taking some of the low-risk offenders -- like the 19-year-old who had sex with his willing but underage girlfriend -- off the registration list allow law enforcement to better focus on violent offenders who deserve more attention? Or would it mean less attention on individuals who could become dangerous offenders if not watched?

Lawmakers in Texas' 79th legislative session wrangled with these same questions in 2005 and passed two laws that, combined, could pave the way for deregistration of some sex offenders who are eligible under federal law. HB 2036 charged the Council on Sex Offender Treatment to start a pilot program to research what deregistration would mean for law enforcement, the public and the offenders, as well as determine the risk of certain offenders to the community. HB 867 allowed for the deregistration of certain sex offenders after the council's research has been completed.

But deregistration requirements developed by Texas would now have to comply with a new federal law that's still being defined. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which was passed in July 2006, would establish a national registry with three tiers to categorize sex offenders -- two of which could lend themselves to deregistration under federal law. At press time, the act was awaiting an opinion from U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who by law is required to issue guidelines and regulations to interpret and implement the legislation.

"Once the federal legislation was signed, that took us back a little bit," said Allison Taylor, executive director of the Council on Sex Offender Treatment. "We're waiting on Alberto Gonzales' opinion as to what tools would be used to deregister and if that would be nonpublic registration."

Under the Adam Walsh Act, a tier-one sex offender (the least offensive) would be granted deregistration after 15 years if the offender keeps a clean record and has completed sex offender treatment. Tier-two offenders may petition for deregistration after 25 years if their record is clear of subsequent offenses and they've undergone offender treatment. Tier three requires a mandatory life registration with no potential for deregistration.

Taylor said deregistration would operate based on risk-assessment. "It means you allocate the funds and resources to your most dangerous population," she said. "That's what we're looking into; which tools we will use to potentially, now under federal law, be able to deregister people."


A Convoluted List
One argument for deregistration is that the registry has become convoluted. The list is littered with outdated addresses of offenders, according to an Austin American-Statesman report, and offenders disappear by either failing to register or by providing incorrect information.

"The registry has the 19-year-old kid who had willing but [legally] nonconsensual sex with his girlfriend mixed in with the 48-year-old pedophile, which is not a good use of law enforcement resources to be running around chasing the kid who made a really bad mistake but got caught up in the system," Taylor said. "He's truly not a sex offender."

The problem of sexual abuse has reached alarming proportions, Taylor said, adding that one in three girls and one in five boys is sexually abused. She said perpetrators involved in sex crimes are apprehended more quickly if they are in the registry. A number of offenders, however, escape conviction or their crimes go unreported.

"We have to remember that the registry represents a small minority of the sex offenders living in our community," she said.

Only 15 percent of sexual assaults are reported, and 1 percent of those reported result in a conviction, Taylor said. "Here in Texas, we know that 2 million Texans were sexually assaulted in 2003, yet only 45,000 on the registry and there are only 30,000 in prison, so you have a huge gap."

Taylor said prevention is the key to reducing sexual offenses. "If we're ever going to end the proliferation of sexual assault, we're going to have to deal with it on the front end and start prevention programs early," she said. "You never fix a problem on the back end."

Registration of sex offenders shouldn't be the focus of law enforcement's energy, Taylor said. "There's no research out there right now that shows us that registration decreases recidivism," Taylor said. She added that recidivism rates are typically 12 percent to 17 percent for sex offenders. And 10 percent of all sex offenders are truly predatory, but those are the ones that make the news.

"We've got years of research to tell us which offenders are high risk and which aren't," said Taylor.

Deregistration of some offenders would allow resources to be concentrated on the dangerous people, she said. "It would tell law enforcement who is truly a risk and who is not."


'It Won't Work'
Austin Police Cmdr. Duane McNeill said deregistration would not work. He said it's important to keep tabs on all sex offenders, even those considered less dangerous. "History has shown there's a progression with sex offenders," he said, adding that someone who starts out experimenting with voyeuristic activities may soon slip into lewd behavior -- and eventually engage in sexually violent behavior.

"Based on the history of offenders," he said, "they don't start out breaking into someone's home and raping someone in the middle of the night."

McNeill said police want to confirm critical information regularly about the more serious offenders and keep them accountable. "I don't know that there are foolproof measures, but if you have repercussions and consequences for their actions when they don't follow the law and register, then if we step in and file charges on them when they do violate the registration requirements, they will think twice, hopefully, before they do something that would get them incarcerated. That would be the way to approach it, not to deregister them."

However, McNeill does recognize the arguments behind classifying sex offenders by the degree of their offense. "I don't have a problem with categorizing people based on their level of seriousness of the offense," he said. "It would be a benefit to focus your energy on people who are shown to be recidivists in sexual offenses or the more serious offenders and hold them to the requirements."

He said there is a duty to keep the public informed about all offenders. "We have a responsibility to do that so people can use their own discretion as far as what kind of safeguards they need to have," McNeill said. "It may be taking a different route to school or it may be not playing in a certain park."

McNeill asked: What if an offender was taken off the public registry and committed a heinous act? "If you regulate people, they realize within their own psychological makeup, 'Hey, they're holding my feet to the fire. I don't need to be out there continually offending.'"

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor