Sex-offender registries, which now exist in some form in every state, provide one tool in the public's efforts to protect itself, an especially its children, from potential dangers. But the registries should be based on common sense, and they should not unduly hamper the lives of offenders who can demonstrate they have redeemed themselves.
That's why lawmakers should give serious consideration to HB13, a bill pre-filed for the 2012 Utah legislative session by Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan. The bill would allow people convicted of the three least serious sexual offenses — unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old, unlawful sexual activity with a minor or misdemeanor voyeurism — to have their names removed from the registry if they have served their sentences, been free from further offenses for five years and can convince a judge they no longer pose a threat.
One does not have to look far to find examples of people whose names probably should be removed from the list. The one most commonly cited in the media last week was of a man who, at age 19, was convicted of having relations with his 15-year-old girlfriend. The two have since married and have four children, yet the man is forced to remain on the registry, which makes it difficult for him to find a job or move about freely with his children.
Any person with computer access can easily study Utah's sex offender registry. Type in your address and the web site quickly provides a list of registered offenders in your area. The state has determined, as a matter of public policy, the need to establish the registry as a means to protect communities and set apart a class of offenders for additional scrutiny. This is because of the nature of their crimes. Primarily, the list is available for the protection of children and other vulnerable citizens.
Others who pose a danger to the community — people with multiple drunken driving arrests, for example — are not part of a database. State lawmakers have decided, with good reason, that sexual crimes rise to a higher level of scrutiny. The crimes can leave debilitating psychological and emotional scars, and some perpetrators have proven difficult to reform.
But the registry addresses only one area of crime and only adult offenders. Juvenile predators are not on the list. Neither, it should be noted, are people who are offending but have not yet been convicted. Experts say a child is more likely to be assaulted by a trusted family friend or relative than by a convicted predator in the neighborhood. It is wise to be aware of people who were convicted of disturbing crimes, but that knowledge is no excuse for a false sense of security.
Likewise, it serves little purpose to keep names on the list who no longer pose a threat. The list should allow for some flexibility, tempered by safeguards that ensure it is not easy to fool the system. HB13 seems a good approach.