Most people think that the sex offender registry is a simple issue: The Legislature decided to create a list of all sex offenders in the state, and convicted offenders appear there. It’s not quite that easy. In fact, the sex offender registry is a complicated web, complete with high emotion and pitfalls that can easily turn a piece of good policy into a bad one.
During my six years on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, I built an expertise on the complex issues of the sex offender registry. I believe the committee and the Legislature made good, solid changes that improved public safety and increased offender accountability.
However, there continue to be challenges with our approach. As a result of the many changes implemented over many years, offenders on the registry are treated differently based on when they were convicted. Additionally, we continue to have a system that relies on the offense for which an individual was convicted and not necessarily that individual’s risk to our communities.
For example, while someone might have been convicted of a “lesser” sex offense, they might be more dangerous than some life registrants, depending on the level of risk for reoffending.
As I worked on the registry, I was struck by the fact that we were — and the sex offender registry still is — just dealing with the tip of the iceberg.
Think of the amount of sex offenders in our state as existing in a pyramid.
At the very bottom of the pyramid are all of the sex offenses committed in Maine. Let’s say, for simplicity, there are 100.
Let’s move up the pyramid. Rape and sexual assault are two of the most underreported violent crimes in the United States. There are many reasons why sex crimes go unreported. For this reason, of those 100 sex offenses, only an estimated 15 to 20 are reported to police.
Of those 15 to 20 reported sex crimes, between one and five go to court. Of those sex crimes that go to court, between 0 and 5 will result in a conviction. Among total convictions, only between 0 and 3 will result in incarceration and/or go on the sex offender registry, meaning that fewer than three sex crimes in 100 result in a perpetrator ending up on the registry.
What does this mean for Maine?
Clearly, there is a gap between reported sex offenses and those that end up on the registry. It’s important to remember that only 2 to 8 percent of sexual violence cases reported to law enforcement are false. It is no different than any other violent crime.
The question then becomes, what do we do? Although the sex offender registry provides a valuable public service that helps maintain public safety, we need to look at broader prevention efforts — efforts that go beyond deterring offenders from committing offenses with the prospect of a tough registry. We currently have a tough registry, but most offenders don’t think they’re going to get caught. And clearly, even with our law enforcement officers working as hard as they do, offenders are correct: Very few sex crimes go to trial.
Let’s talk about real solutions to sexual violence and not only focus on what happens after the fact. We have to look upstream to where the problem originates.
The first thing we need to do is believe survivors when they come forward. The more that victims and survivors are supported by their communities, the more they will report sexual violence, and the safer our communities will become.
We have to hold one another accountable in our communities. If you see something, say something. Sometimes being an active bystander is hard, but building a safer community is hard — and it’s worth it. We need to continue to put more time and resources into seeking statewide strategies to end sexual violence. A good first step, in the form of a bill to create a Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, is making its way through the Legislature now.
The sex offender registry isn’t a simple issue and neither is the issue of ending sexual violence. Looking toward prevention is hard when such difficult public safety issues face us in the here and now. But, just as my colleagues and I worked together to address these complex issues, I know we can confront the challenges of sexual violence with that same aim. Don’t we owe it to each other to try?
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is in her first term in the Maine Senate. She previously served in the Maine State House of Representatives for six terms. She may be reached at SenAnne.Haskell@legislature.maine.gov.