One Florida county is posting big red signs on the lawns of sexual predators. As with all news about sex offenders coming out of FL, you have to parse it carefully to really see what’s going on, but on close reading, it’s clear:
This county has so many registered sex offenders that parents can’t tell who is a danger and who is not. So, to ease the minds of those parents, they are selecting the people on the list they think are actually dangerous to children (those who are repeat offenders and/or whose offense was violent and involved a child 12 or under) and identifying them with red lawn signs.
This begs the question of why people who don’t fall into those categories are on the list in the first place, and shows how registries are rendered effectively useless when they are filled with non-violent and/or statutory offenders.
It’s pretty easy to guess why there are so many non-predatory offenders in the county: many Florida counties routinely run internet sting operations, where officers go into places where very, very stupid men go to seek out sex with willing adult partners (Yahoo sex chat rooms, Craigslist personal ads, etc.) and pose as 14 or 15yo sexually-experienced teen girls looking for older guys to hook up with. When they run these sting operations, they can, in a single county, make three or four dozen arrests in a single week. Because, stupid, stupid men who are out looking for sex probably aren’t going to make such of a distinction between a willing 19yo and a willing 15yo, because they are not thinking with their brains.
But, the same counties running these stings and filling their registries with these men (and men arrested for similar offenses) apparently acknowledge that they don’t really pose a threat. They aren’t getting red signs on their lawns.
Perhaps we should be asking why law enforcement is bothering to run these stings when they themselves acknowledge that the men they are arresting–non-violent, statutory, and nearly all first-time offenders–are not predators? Why, when they arrest a man in one of these stings, or a college student for downloading child porn, do they pat themselves on the back in the press for catching a “predator” when, in fact, those offenses would not classify the offender as a sexual predator? These internet-based stings create sex offenders rather than catching predators.
And we should acknowledge that filling registries with first-time, non-violent, statutory offenders makes it harder, not easier, for parents to get the information the registry purports to provide them with. They aren’t all that worried about whether their 27yo neighbor might say yes if their teen daughter propositions him–most parents realize that a teen daughter who is seeking out sex with older men has problems that need to be addressed within the home, not by the government. They are worried about whether their neighbor is going to kidnap, molest, and maybe kill their 6 year old child. Those are the offenders they want identified, and when those violent and/or repeat offenders are hidden between entries for dozens and dozens of men who, when they were 24, made a stupid choice involving a teen girl looking for sex online, they have trouble finding that information.
I think public sex offender registries should be entirely abolished. They do not do what they are designed to do, and they set a dangerous precedent regarding legislators being able to punish people indefinitely for any crimes they feel like punishing them for. (Remember, legislators have the ability to decide what is a crime, what is a sex crime, and what goes on a public registry, and they have no responsibility to rely on research or precedent or even common sense as they do so.)
But, an incremental approach may be most effective. At the very least, we need to remove first-time non-violent and/or statutory offenders from these registries. “Solutions” like they’ve come up with in this county–leaving everybody on the registry but identifying the offenders they think are genuinely dangerous with a red lawn sign–do not make sense, and invalidate the entire purpose of the registry. Instead, this county, and all counties, should remove anybody who doesn’t fit strict criteria for being a predatory offender (violent offenses against prepubescent children, repeat offenses) from the registries, so that they will actually provide information about the people who are at a (relatively, compared to other sex offenders, but still not as high as for other crimes) high risk of reoffense to the community, rather than being lists of men who once made a really, really stupid mistake.