California state Senator George Runner has proposed a bill that would ban convicted sex offenders from creating profiles on social networking sites. This is similar bills passed in New York, Illinois, and to several being considered in several other states.
While these laws sound like motherhood and apple pie, they are misguided and will not accomplish the objective. The intent behind this law is easy to understand. We need to address public safety in the face of sharply increasing numbers of registered sex offenders. The issue is how best to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, this law fails to consider fundamental distinctions between what constitutes a social network, how this law balances the punishments meted to sex offenders vs. other types of serious online criminals, the problematic issues around which individuals become labeled as sex offenders, and so on.
The term ’social network’ is undefined
Making it a felony for sexual predators to join social networking sites that are designed for children and teens, for dating, or specifically designed to meet vulnerable people is one thing, but this law takes an entirely undifferentiated and draconian approach by including all sites with any social networking functionality.
Amazon.com and eBay, for example, are social networks that enable people to have profiles, post comments, and more. Sites that enable job searches like LinkedIn and Monster.com are social networks, (see How the Web Has Changed Job Searching for more on the critical role social networks play in job hunting).
Support sites for sex offenders, sites that facilitate communication with family members, sites that allow comments such as newspapers, sites sharing information on products, hobbies, music, and so on, are all social networking sites. Moreover, the dynamic nature of the web is driving ever more sites to enable social interactions.
As the law now stands, it will make it more difficult for sex offenders to find jobs, apartments, or get support to help prevent re-offending, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Dept of Justice. Their research found that steady employment and support are key factors in reducing recidivism risks; the unintended consequence of the law may actually be an increase in the risks posed to society.
Lawmakers need to spend more time considering the differences in social networking sites and, at a bare minimum, craft laws with a more precise definition of what types of social sites should be illegal for sex offenders.
Sex offenders are one type of criminal threatening consumers online
Given the intent of the law is to protect innocent individuals online, shouldn’t this law also ban other types of serious criminals that use social networking sites to facilitate their crimes – like scammers, stalkers, ID thieves, and so on? While the Internet is predominantly a safe and positive place for users of all ages, Internet criminals wreak considerable harm, stealing consumers’ life-savings, their identities, and in some cases killing victims they met online. Sex offenses are heinous crimes, but should murderers get lesser penalties?
The vast majority of convicted sex offenders did not use social networks (or the Internet) in the commission of their crimes. This law assumes that though most sex offenders did not use social networks to find or groom their victims, they will do so in the future. If the individual did not use social networking sites, is it reasonable to ban them?
The changes add fuel to the debate over how sex offenders are defined
Changing the law to prohibit sex offenders from using social networking sites does not alter the scope of who is labeled a “sex offender”, but it has reignited the debate over how broadly the label is applied. There is broad concern that the law as it stands is unjust because it does not differentiate between serial child rapists, and for example, a person caught three times relieving him/herself behind a tree. Public indecency for a third or subsequent conviction labels a person as a sex offender. Some are inappropriately caught under this label and they do not deserve to have their names and photos exposed on sex offender registries, or to be shunned by society.
The problem worsens as we look across states. Many states dump the sex offender label on individuals as diverse as rapists, pedophiles, exhibitionists, and teens that had consensual sex, or that sent explicit images of themselves to a boy/girlfriend, etc. Surely, no one believes these are equivalent behaviors, or that those caught in these varying circumstances should be treated equally.
The law also fails to take into account the varying likelihood of re-offense. Despite public anxiety, research shows that different categories of sex offenders pose widely different degrees of risk of re-offending.
According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Dept of Justice, recidivism rates can be high for some types of sex offenders but even with elevated risk levels they strongly caution against viewing them as a homogeneous group.
Highlighting the disparity in recidivism rates among segments of sex offenders, Marshall and Barbaree (1990) found in their review of studies that the recidivism rate for:
- Incest offenders ranged between 4 and 10 percent.
- Rapists ranged between 7 and 35 percent.
- Child molesters with female victims ranged between 10 and 29 percent.
- Child molesters with male victims ranged between 13 and 40 percent.
Beyond categorizing sex offenders by the type of offense they committed, a complex set of variables determine who, within each category, is likely to re-offend. Factors include whether the offender received treatment, the age of the offender, whether they are employed, the type of sexual deviance, their psychological stability, whether they are substance abusers, and so on. The current one-size-fits all policy towards those labeled simply doesn’t fit.
The issues I’ve listed about this particular approach do not pretend to cover other aspects like legality, jurisdiction, enforceability, etc. that will surely be wrestled over, but they should raise concern in the minds of the public as to the justness of this law.
Indeed, in a 2008 brief on state sex offender management policies, Thomas MacLellan, program director for the justice and public safety program of the National Governors Association, outlined challenges facing states. “People try to do the right things, but states don’t always have the capacity to look at all the research,” he said. “A lot of decisions will be made on consensus.”
There are sexual predators using the Internet to find new victims, and the intent to help protect individuals from such offenders online is good. This particular legislation however will not achieve that goal.
- Illinois Full Text of HB1314 – Short Description: SEX OFFENDERS-NO SOCIAL NET
- NGA Issue Brief Managing Convicted Sex Offenders in the Community
- Illinois Compiled Statutes defining Sex Offenders
- Recidivism of Sex Offenders – U.S. Department of Justice
- How States Aim to Stop Sex Offenders: Introduction
- Illinois Sex Offender Information
- Rethinking “Sex Crimes” and Sex Offender Registries
- Social-networking ban for sex offenders: Bad call?
- Virtual Concentration Camp for Illinois Sex Offenders?
- Synopsis As Introduced: Amends the Criminal Code of 1961. Provides that it is a Class 4 felony for a person required to register as a sex offender under the Sex Offender Registration Act to access or use a social networking website during the period for which the sex offender is required to register under that Act. Amends the Unified Code of Corrections. Requires as a condition of parole, mandatory supervised release, probation, conditional discharge, or supervision that a sex offender refrain from accessing or using a social networking website.
- U.S. Department of Justice: Criminal Offenders Statistics – Sex offenders