The Unending Labyrinth of the Florida Sex Offender Registry

It will never stop growing; says one expert, it is like a prison from which no one is ever released

The end of one of the most infamous child disappearances came to a rapid close this year. The abduction and disappearance 27 years ago of Jacob Wetterling concluded with prosecutors announcing the plea deal with the man who abducted and killed Wetterling. He confessed to the abduction and murder and will likely serve the rest of his life in prison.

Wetterling's abduction and disappearance led to the creation of the federal "Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act." This was the first of the federal and state registration laws that created the now massive and massively expensive industry that, in theory, tracks and identifies convicted sex offenders who have completed their sentences and have been released from incarceration.

Ineffective legislation

The sad and tragic irony is that none of those laws that have been passed in the 27 years since Jacob's abduction would have saved Jacob. The man who pled guilty had not been convicted of any crime of sexual violence and would not have appeared on any registry.

The massive web of surveillance of these individuals costs a great deal of money and resources. According to a story from the Orlando Sentinel this year, the Orange County Sheriff's Office has to process more than a dozen sex offenders' registrations every day.

This is because in Florida, like many states, offenders must register with their local Sheriff's Office at least once a year, and for some, as many as four times every year. Not only that, they may be required to do so in the county in which they live, the county where they work and the county where they go to school. For some individuals, this could mean they have to register with a sheriff's office 12 times every year.

The problem for the offender is if they miss a registration, it could become an additional criminal offense and could lead to their being sent back to prison. Of course, this system also means a great deal of work for every one of the 67 counties in Florida. Orange County Sheriff's Office employs 12 people to handle this work, including four detectives who do nothing but the registration of offenders and the verification of their addresses.

The Sheriff's Office is not a charity

These 12 individuals do not work free, so the taxpayers of Orange County are on the hook for their services. What do they receive in exchange for this payment? Very little. Empirical evidence from research conducted around the nation strongly suggests the that "public safety" benefit of these laws is virtually nonexistent.

While politicians happily pile on additional requirements, they are only beginning to grasp the true price of these sex offender laws, which cost a great deal and have had little or no effect on "protecting children." Among felonies, sex offenses have the lowest rate of recidivism, with about 94 percent of offenders never reoffending.

A growing body of research notes that not only do these laws not improve public safety with regard to sexual offenses, but they cause a tremendous amount of collateral damage.

Nowhere to live

Cities and towns in Florida and across the nation have made the situation for released offenders often untenable, delighting in creating residency and work restrictions that can leave an entire town off limits. They can effectively prohibit an offender living or working anywhere within limits of a city.

These laws can force individuals to become homeless and make maintaining a job difficult or impossible. In a classic act of NIMBYism, the cities hope to force these individuals to go somewhere else. But where? When numerous cities pass similar ordinances, these individuals can be left homeless, with nowhere to live and practically invites them to break some law so they can then be returned to jail.

Society's best defense against recidivism is the hopeful and healthy reintegration of individuals back into society. Providing the training, treatment and other assistance, helping them to find jobs and a place to live is the best way to protect children and all members of society.

Florida has approximately 66,000 individuals on the state registry. This number will inevitably and inexorably grow. Because there is practically no way for most offenders to ever have their names removed from the registry, and because the legislature creates more offenses that require registration, it is only when someone dies that they can be certain to leave the registry.

Because of the devastating consequences of any conviction for a sexual offense, you want to work with attorneys, like those at O'Brien Hatfield, P.A., who are experienced and understand how to develop the most effective defense and limit the damage of these types of charges.