The California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) released a report on April 2, 2014 recommending significant changes to California’s “one size fits all” sex offender registration laws.1
The report is entitled A Better Path to Community Safety: Tiering Background Paper. It provides some convincing evidence for scrapping California’s current scheme of lifetime registration for everyone convicted of any sex offense, regardless of the nature of their crime, date of conviction or risk of re-offense.
California’s Current Registration Scheme is Counterproductive to Public Safety
According to the report, new research and evidence-based approaches demonstrate that not only is California’s current sex offender registration system ineffective at providing enhanced public safety, it may actually be counterproductive, contributing to an overall increase in sexual re-offense.
“In light of such research findings, California policy makers need to rethink the registration laws because society is actually better protected when attention is focused on those who truly present a risk while very low-risk sex offenders are permitted to develop stable lifestyles and move forward with their lives.” 2
CASOMB believes public safety would be improved if California’s current system of universal lifetime registration was modified to terminate registration for lower risk sex offenders after a period of 10 or 20 years, and thereby permit concentration of critical resources to be focused on the most dangerous offenders.
Assumptions about Sex Offenders vs. What the Research Says
According to CASOMB, research reveals several misconceptions about sex offenders:
1 . Myth: Sex offenders are all alike and should be treated alike.
Truth: Sex offenders differ in many ways, from the nature of their sex offense and sexual interests, to their risk to reoffend.
2 . Myth: The likelihood that a sex offender will re-offend does not change over time.
Truth: Research shows that the longer a sex offender remains offense-free in the community, the less likely he or she is to reoffend. Studies show relatively low rates of reoccurring sex offenses, ranging from 5% to 19% dependent of the risk-level of the offender and the time elapsed after their first offense. This is significantly lower than the rate of re-offense of any other crime, except murder.
3 . Myth: Most sex crimes are committed by previously identified sex offenders.
Truth: Studies show that approximately 95% of solved sex crimes are committed by individuals never previously identified as sex offenders (non-registered, first-time sex offenders).
4. Myth: Most sex offenses are committed by persons who are “strangers” to the victim.
Truth: Approximately 93% of sex offenses against children are committed by persons known to the victim, not by “strangers.” In fact, 34.3% of sex offenses against children are committed by family members of the victim and 58.7% are committed by acquaintances, according to the Bureau of Justice.
5. Myth: Having a sex offender registry decreases the number of new sex crimes.
Truth: Research studies have found no correlation between required sex offender registration and decreases in sex offenses.
6. Myth: A sex offender registry helps law enforcement solve new sex offense crimes.
Truth: One research study does indicate that a registry can help law enforcement apprehend perpetrators more quickly; however, the research indicates the effectiveness of apprehending reoffenders, not first-time offenders. Therefore, there is little evidence to support this assumption.
7. Myth: Public notification through a Megan’s Law website makes the public safer.
Truth: Little research has been done, but one study indicates that a small number of citizens access internet information regarding local sex offenders and very few of those take any action. Some researches even argue that public registration and community notification can discourage victims from reporting these incidents, as it may unintentionally lead to identification of the victim. This argument is based on the fact that the vast majority of sex offenders are family members or acquaintances of the victim.3
The Problems With California’s Sex Offender Registration System
Originally, lifetime sex offender registration was deemed necessary because the California Legislature had declared sex offender re-offense rates to be “frighteningly high.” Thus, these offenders had a reduced expectation of privacy and constant police surveillance is justified. We know now that sex offender re-offense is exceptionally low.
Over time, registration was expanded to include a wider variety of crimes and behaviors. Additionally, community notification laws provided public access to offenders’ identities.
Later, community regulatory laws restricting a sex offender’s residency and presence began to attach to the registration requirement.
A constantly growing body of research demonstrates that changes in sex offender registration, notification and community laws has altered the effectiveness of current policies in place regulating these offenders. This research clearly illustrates the following issues:
- This “one size fits all” strategy assumes that all sex offenders are the same, and have equal risk of re-offense. However, not all sex offenders are at the same. Low risk offenders have been found to reoffend at relatively lower rates while high risk offenders typically reoffend at much higher rates. It is possible to use well-researched actuarial risk assessment instruments to assign offenders to groups according to risk level. (i.e. Low, Medium, High.)
- The statewide costs for running this registration program are significantly high, at an estimated $24,000,000 per year by local agencies alone. These costs could be greatly reduced, or simply reevaluated, if these programs were used to monitor higher risk offenders, rather than monitoring all sex offenders equally, including those that pose no threat to the community.
- Community regulatory laws negatively impact sex offenders’ lives as well as the lives of their families. As a result, their stability within the community is being compromised. This is not ideal for those convicted of “non-serious” or “non-violent” offenses. The obstacles posed by registration prevent individuals from obtaining housing and employment, and becoming contributing tax-paying members of society.
- Research on both non-sexual and sexual offenders has consistently indicated that focusing on higher risk offenders delivers the greatest return on efforts to reduce reoffending.4
CASOMB Recommends a Tiered Registration System
Four states, including California, require universal lifetime sex offender registration. Every other state as well as the federal government use what is known as a “tiered” registration system to classify a sex offender according to risk of re-offense. CASOMB recommends California adopt a three-tiered registration system consistent with the rest of the country.
The following is an overview of how a tiered California sex offender registry would work:
Lifetime registration period with law enforcement and public notification would be required for the following:
- Sexually Violent Predators;
- Offenders with repeat violent sex offenses; and
- High-risk sex offenders.
20-year registration period with law enforcement and public notification would be required for the following:
- “Serious” or “violent” felony sex offenders who are not high-risk sex offenders.
Petition for removal from public notification possible after 10 years, if the person has not been convicted of a subsequent sex offense, or any future serious or violent offense. He or she would still be required to register with law enforcement for the 20-year period. Very limited exceptions to the registration requirement may be available to some juvenile sex offenders.
10-year registration period with law enforcement only, exempt from public identification on California’s online sex offender registry would be required for the following:
- Non “serious” and non “violent” sex offenders; and
- Misdemeanor sex offenders.
“Sexually Violent Predator” (SVP) status is determined by California Welfare & Institutions Code, beginning with Section 6600. SVP status means indeterminate civil commitment in a state hospital following a prison sentence is authorized by law until a jury decides an offender is eligible for release into the community.
“High-risk sex offender” means a person convicted of a sex offense who scores a 6 or higher, 0 being least likely to reoffend, on the statewide actuarial assessment tool known as the “Static-99” or “Static-99R.”
“Serious” or “Violent” felony sex offenses are defined under California’s Three Strike’s law (Penal Code Sections 667.5 (c) and 1192.7). Also included: Penal Code Section 269 (aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14 more than 7 years younger than the perpetrator) and Section 288.7 (sexual intercourse, sodomy or oral copulation between an adult and a child under the age of 10).
Non “Serious” and non “violent” sex offender means a person convicted of a felony sex offense that is not a strike.
What Does Wallin & Klarich Think?
Our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have over 30 years of experience representing clients charged with sex crimes. We have also been very successful helping many convicted sex offenders who have demonstrated their commitment to leading a law-abiding lifestyle since their conviction to be relieved of their lifetime duty to register.
Our experience tells us that not everyone convicted of a sex offense poses a significant risk to the public and should not bear the burden of a lifetime duty to register. Nor should tax-payer dollars be continuously wasted on monitoring those who are least likely to re-offend.
The California Sex Offender Management Board is California’s leading authority in the field of sex offender management and we believe the research included in their report is highly credible.
We strongly support CASOMB’s recommendation that California make the sensible and logical decision to improve public safety by adopting a tiered system of sex offender registration. We hope you will contact your elected state officials and urge them to follow the advice of these professionals by proposing and enacting legislation that will accomplish this goal in 2015.
1. [California Sex Offender Management Board: A Better Path to Community Safety: Sex Offender Registration in California, “Tiering Background Paper”;http://www.cce.csus.edu/portal/admin/handouts/Tiering%20Background%20Paper%20FINAL%20FINAL%204-2-14.pdf ]↩