Sex Crimes (and Offenders) Defined
A sex offender is defined as any person convicted as committing a sex crime, an increasingly clear and present danger within contemporary society. To better understand the implications of living in an area with a high population of registered sex offenders, we must first become fully aware of just what actual constitutes a “sex crime”.
In the U.S, sex crimes have been extended to include those not covered by traditionally recognizable acts of serious sexual misconduct, such as rape, child sexual abuse, and incest. Other acts also considered sexual crimes, though usually invoking less serious penalties, include “sexting” (the sending of pornography, obscene SMS messages, and other illicit media using a cellular or smart phone device), molestation, urinating in public, and performing sexual acts in public places.
Rates of Sexual Crime in the U.S.
The problem of sexually-oriented crime has ballooned to alarming proportions in the U.S. in recent years. According to one study, it is estimated that, on average, 300,000 women are victims of rape every year, while victims other sexual offenses total around 3.7 million annually. In addition, 900,000 children are criminally mistreated every year, with 9% being sexually abused. While the total number of registered sexual offenders across the U.S. is 747,408 per a recent estimate, there is wide variation in the populations of such criminals between states. California has the dubious distinction of having the greatest number of sexual offenders of any states, with Texas and Michigan close on its heels.
On the other hand, the state with the lowest number of registered sex offenders is Pennsylvania, followed by Maryland and New Mexico.
Fighting a Serious Problem
In order to curb the menace of sexual delinquency, a large body of legislation meant to deter sexual crime and register offenders have been passed at federal and state levels across the United States. With the ultimate aim of punishing the guilty and deterring such acts by potential offenders, such laws began to be passed with increasing frequency in the early 1990s, with a special emphasis on preventing sexual crimes involving children. One effect of these was making it mandatory for sexual offenders to register their names and addresses with authorities. In 1996, these acts were extended by the passing of “Megan's Law”, which made this information readily accessible to the public.
In 2007, the Adam Walsh Protection Act (AWA) was passed. It has 6 objectives, each intended to help streamline the tracking of sex offenders. All states were required to implement this federal legislation. Depending on the nature and seriousness of the crimes committed, the AWA classifies sexual offenders into 3 tiers. Additionally, it clarified the long list of crimes for which registration is mandatory by offenders. Procedures were simplified, and the ease of tracking perpetrators of sexual crimes was enhanced.
How Effective Have the Laws Proven?
While the purpose of the legislative acts mentioned above was to decrease incidence of sex crimes, the trends suggest that the actual results have been otherwise. As we attempt to explain this conundrum, and variation of registered sex offenders between states, we need to consider the following points:
- Many sexual offenders, after their release, return for repeat offences. This is what is known as recidivism. The data regarding recidivism is far from adequate, and further studies in this regard are required. Additionally, certain research reports offenders by their acts, which may cause single criminals to be counted multiple times.
- Under-reporting of sexual crimes in the past. This is more significant in the case of children because in most cases of child abuse, the culprit is a person trusted by the child, and until recently there were few channels through which adolescent victims could find help.
- Density of population of a given state can lead to erratic statistics when looking at them in absolute, instead of relative, terms. For example, New York, while having a relatively low sex crime rate, has a high number in absolute terms because of the density of population.
- Changes in laws have caused many more crimes to be included within this category.
One independent study on the effectiveness of the laws in the state of South Carolina found that after 1995, when the first relevant laws were introduced in the state, there was substantial reduction (11%) in sex crimes. After 1999, however, when sex offender registry was implemented in the state, no favorable change was noticed. Another study suggests that AWA’s tier-based classifications were unrelated to recidivism, except in Florida. Here, it was found to be inversely proportional.
There is no doubt that sex offenders need to be punished for their heinous crimes. However, factors like re-integration of the offenders in society, preventing recidivism, and rehabilitation of the victims, physically and emotionally, should all be considered while trying to find an effective and sustainable solution to this sad problem.