Few groups are as widely despised as sex offenders, reported Al Jazeera America. Activities prosecuted as sex offenses vary by state, but can include public urination, consensual sex between teenagers, streaking, prostitution, downloading child pornography and rape. In some states, law-enforcement officials distribute flyers to notify neighbors of registrants’ convictions. Some registrants are prohibited from using the Internet. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that indefinite detention at psychiatric hospitals — or “civil commitment” — of sex offenders is constitutional.
The first law requiring sex offenders to register publicly and for life was passed in California in 1947 and targeted gay men, according to Andrew Extein, executive director of the Center for Sexual Justice. But many of today’s laws have their origins in the late 1970s, when feminists and social conservatives worked together to publicize high-profile “stranger danger” attacks on children, says Roger Lancaster, anthropology professor at George Mason University and author of “Sex Panic and the Punitive State.”
Beginning in the mid-1990s, several laws went into effect that changed how sex-offense cases were prosecuted. In 1994, states were required to create databases of sex offenders. Two years later, Megan’s Law, named for a 7-year-old in New Jersey who was brutally raped and murdered by a neighbor with two previous sex convictions, allowed states to make those registries public. States passed their own versions of the law; in some cases, they required that neighbors be notified of paroled offenders’ previous convictions. Later laws moved those sex-offender databases online, created a national registry, required lifetime registration of people 14 years old and up and imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving children.
But almost 20 years after the passage of Megan’s Law, criminologists and judges, along with a burgeoning movement of sex-offender registrants and their families, are challenging not only the constitutionality of the laws but their effectiveness in reducing sexual assault. In January, a California court ruled in favor of a paroled sex offender who had argued that city and county “child-safety zone” ordinances prohibiting people in the registry from using parks, beaches and similar recreation areas were an unconstitutional form of banishment. In April, the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling by declining to review it.
Thirty-three states have opted out of at least some aspects of the law that brings registries online. Many, like New York, take issue with the 2006 federal law that requires states to list every person convicted of a sex offense on a public registry. Some, like Maryland, are considering removing the names of people who committed less serious offenses.
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