Branding Former Sex Offenders

A recent Justice Department report suggests that state sex-offender laws may need revisiting. The study finds former sex offenders are much less likely to be rearrested than other former criminals after their release from prison.

In fact, of the 9,691 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, or child molestation who were released in 1994, only 5.3 percent were arrested for another sex crime after their release. The percentage of those that were actually convicted after their second arrest was down in the 3 percent range. Forty-three percent were rearrested within three years - that contrasts with a rearrest rate of 68 percent for inmates serving time for a variety of other crimes.

Do these statistics undercut the rationale for so-called Megan's laws passed by all 50 states?

Such laws allow the public to know the names and addresses of former sex offenders living nearby. Their name refers to a young New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who had served two prison terms for sexually assaulting children. The girl's parents didn't know his background.

The Justice report raises the question of whether these laws were overreactions to a few high-profile events, rather than reasoned legislation.

At the least, the laws isolate and stigmatize those who have served time for a sex crime - a sort of excess punishment that may unfairly assume all sex offenders will tend toward the same behavior for life.

What's more, the term "sex offender" doesn't include some important distinctions. Many were peeping Toms, whom the law often throws in the same lot with serial rapists and pedophiles.

A large body of evidence shows that most sex offenders are typically people their victims knew. Yet most Megan's laws are directed to warn strangers of the whereabouts of former offenders, usually through a statewide registry and community notification. Such lists can make rehabilitation and reentry into society much more difficult for men (or women) who have paid their penalty.

Moreover, the report used 1994 data. Much has happened since then, such as better treatment for former sex offenders - treatment that stands to lower the recidivism rate even further. Indeed, more prisons could and should have such programs.

For lower-level sex offenses, some rehabilitation programs already have had reasonable success in changing behavior. While no one wants an increase in the number of victims, the report shows it may be time to refine Megan's laws to reflect facts, not emotion.

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