In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act came into law, which birthed a national registry for sex offenders. Convicted sexual offenders were organized into three tiers, depending on the severity of their offenses. After release from prison, offenders would be obligated to report their residence address at specific intervals. This information was shared with state governments, so that law enforcement officials could monitor parolees and ex-convicts. Neighbors could be warned if a sex offender lived nearby.

The idea behind the law was straightforward: sex offenders often commit similar crimes. By keeping track of these offenders, police could prevent future crimes.

Six years later, the results are in: the program doesn’t work.

Seven Reasons to Reject Registering Sex Offenders in North Carolina

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume there are no technical problems with the registry system. We’ll pretend that innocent people are never mistakenly convicted of a sexual offense in North Carolina, that the database accurately lists names and addresses, and so on. However, keep in mind that we are dismissing thousands of real-world problems this way.

Even if the system functioned perfectly, it still wouldn’t be good policy, for seven fundamental reasons:

  • It’s essentially punitive. When other criminals serve out their sentences and are released from prison, they have “served their debt to society” and are free to continue their lives. Not so for sex offenders. Tier-3 offenders are required to send a report to the registry every 90 days for the rest of their lives, even after their sentences have been discharged. Offenders cannot live in certain areas, visit specific neighborhoods, or work in certain jobs. The offender registry has become an open-ended form of punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
  • It criminalizes thought, rather than action. Our nation punishes people for the actions they do, not for crimes they might commit someday. The sex offender registry upends that tradition by putting restrictions on people due to their potential for future criminal action, which is completely unjust.
  • State laws put too many restrictions on registered offenders. Consider state and local regulations that forbid sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or day care center. The rule sounds reasonable, but a map of a typical city will demonstrate that schools tend to be packed together in residential neighborhoods, barring ex-convicts from living in over 90 percent of a city. Similar rules can prevent an ex-offender from obtaining a job paying a living wage. 
  • Offenders are compelled to violate parole or other laws. While actual violations of parole reporting seem to be quite rare, evidence is emerging that a substantial number of former sex offenders are disguising their identities in order to live and work in forbidden areas.
  • Sex crimes have changed, and the registry does not recognize that. Many forms of adolescent sex play, while not exactly harmless, automatically fall into tier 3 registry offenses if prosecuted. The teen practice of “sexting”—using cell phones to send naked pictures of oneself—can constitute child pornography if the sender is 17 years old or younger. The recipient of those pictures also can be prosecuted even if she is underage.
  • The registry system doesn’t address the real sex crime dangers. The majority of serious sexual offenses are committed by family members and friends of the victim. But the Walsh Act ignores principles of risk assessment; it assumes that all sex offenders of the same tier level present the same danger to the community. Law enforcement resources are spent tracking many released offenders and ignoring real threats in our neighborhoods.
  • Studies show it just doesn’t work. A study by Amanda Agan reported in the 2011 Journal of Law and Economics found that registries showed no effect on limiting re-offense rates. That report joins a number of other studies that found no significant deterrent effect from the law. Overall, the rate of sexual offenses has roughly tracked other violent crime patterns in the years since the Walsh Act went into effect.

Our Best Advice: Don’t Get on the Sex Offender List

Until the policy is changed, the best way to avoid the penalties of being on the national sex offender registry is to avoid being convicted of a North Carolina sex crime. A skilled Wilmington criminal defense attorney is crucial for avoiding a felony conviction in New Hanover County. 

If you have been arrested and charged with a sexual offense, call Speaks Law Firm today at 910-341-7570 or toll-free at 877-593-4233. We will assess your case and craft a legal strategy to get you the best outcome available.


R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.
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