I would like to tell you a fairy tale. Please keep in mind that fairy tales are fictional.
Once upon a time, in a place where people were nearly all wise and ruled themselves, there was a very sweet and honest child. She never lied. She only spoke the truth, and everyone believed her.
Now this little girl decided that, since there were a very few bad men, and that they must be punished, she would do something she had never done before, and lie. She knew that there were bad men because her parents told her so, though none had ever been bad to her. She had a friend whose father was one of those men who her parents said was bad, and she was never allowed to go see her friend because the bad man might decide to hurt her.
She was sure that the bad man had hurt her friend, and she wanted very much for the bad man to be gone from her friend’s house, so she told her mother that the bad man had done something bad to her.
Everyone believed the little girl, because bad men always do bad things again, and besides, the little girl would never lie.
So they took the bad man and put him into a prison where he would never be able to hurt any little girls again.
So the little girl was a hero and no one ever hurt anyone in that land again.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Like all fairy tales, this has a bit of truth. The truth is that sometimes children get hurt. Most of the time it is by someone they know and trust. Very rarely, it is by a stranger.
In this tale, no one got hurt, but someone was punished for a nonexistent harm. This is also something that happens. It happened in Salem, Massachusetts a long time ago. It happens today, all too frequently. We go by the word of a child who may want, as this child did, to see a bad man punished, someone her parents have warned her about. It may be because she wants attention, as we believe happened in Salem long ago.
However, there is much of this story which is completely false.
Very few persons on the sex offender registry re-offend. The re-conviction rate across 15 states surveyed federally by the Department of Justice and followed for 3 years is 3.5%. It might be even lower in the state you live in. About a third of the persons on the sex offender registry were convicted when they were minors. Some were convicted of normal childhood curiosity. Juveniles have even lower re-offense rates than adults.
If everybody currently on the sex offender registries were tossed in prison forever, it would barely make a dent in the number of sex crimes that are committed. With a re-offense rate of about 3.5%, that means that over 96% of those who commit sex crimes every year have never been convicted of one before. Getting caught seems to be the trigger which causes offenders to stop. Treatment, which usually goes along with conviction, does work. Treatment has been shown to about halve the percentage of re-offense.
Another part of my fairy tale which is false is that the family is better off without the registrant in the house. Sometimes the father is the main breadwinner in the family and the family suffers a great loss of income if he is falsely accused and returned to prison. Nearly always, the former offender is greatly loved by the child or children in the household. They may know he has done something wrong, but they also know that he regrets what he has done. In some cases, he may have been falsely accused, or his “victim” may be his wife and the mother of his children, and they may be quite happily married. Or he may have been convicted of any of a number of truly minor offenses. In all these cases, the child wants her father to be part of her life, going to dance recitals and parent-teacher meetings, but he is not allowed to do these things because of his status.
We, as a society, tend to believe that the people on the sex offender registry are bad people, who will always re-offend. We, understandably, want to protect our children. But what we fail to realize is that we are creating more harm than could possibly be justified for the overwhelming majority of the persons on the sex offender registries and, moreover, for their families.