Support for Proposed Changes to the Sex Offender Registration Requirements (CA Penal Code 290)

The California Sex Offender Management Board has recently proposed changes to sex offender registration requirements (CA Penal Code 290), bringing into question the rationale behind, and the efficacy of, the sex offender registration system. California has the biggest population of registered sex offenders in the country, in Santa Clara County alone there are 2469 registered sex offenders and it’s constantly growing. Management of the registry, and the monitoring of people on it, is difficult and puts a drain on law enforcement resources.

There are two main assumptions behind the existence of the sex offender registry:

  1. That sex offenders are likely to re-offend
  2. That monitoring of sex offenders in the community will increase public safety by decreasing the risk of re-offending.

Ultimately, the rationale of a sex offender registry is that the public, especially children will be protected from sexual predators.

However, when we look at the evidence, these assumptions are proved very wrong. People have an image of child sex offenders as men lurking in the bushes at a playground, or in a shopping mall. But overwhelmingly, Department of Justice figures show us that sex offenses are committed by someone a child knows, in 93% of cases, an acquaintance or family member. In the case of sex offenses committed against adults, the same is true in around 90% of cases.

As Summit Defense attorney Steve Davidson notes,

“Family members and acquaintances are the people most likely to be sex offenders, not strangers. And at the end of the day, there is nothing that any sex offender registry can do to protect children from their uncles, step-fathers, family friends, and so on.”

Despite these shocking figures, myths about sex offenders remain. This maintains a ‘witch hunt’ mentality in the public sphere and also means that trying to change the rules around sex offender registration is a difficult task.

The most recent report of the Board argues for a ‘tiering’ system, where certain sex offenders who are assessed as low risk register for only 10-20 years, and not for life. There are compelling arguments to be made in favor of this proposal:

  • The current registry does not make useful distinctions between different types of sex offenders, so it does not help law enforcement or the public identify which offenders are the most dangerous.
  • The chance of a person re-offending diminishes over time , studies show that the longer a sex offender remains in the community without offending, the lower their risk of re-offending.
  • There is NO evidence that shows that having a registry leads to a decrease in sex crimes.
  • About 95% of solved sex crimes are committed by people who have not been identified as sex offenders, so have not been on the registry.[1]

One further consideration that is often left out of the debate, however, are the dramatic and negative effects that registration has on someone’s life. Unlike any other person that commits an offense, sex offenders in California continue to be monitored for the rest of their lives, long after they have served their sentence. This is really a form of life-long punishment, and it presents significant barriers to their being a productive member of the community.

Summit Defense Attorneys have worked with many clients who have faced disastrous consequences after being required to register, including people who were convicted of low-level offenses over a decade ago, and who have not re-offended in any way since then. These people have been denied housing and are unable to find employment because of their details appearing on the sex offender registry. Attorney Steve Davidson says, “Clients come to us absolutely frustrated. They committed an offense ten or twenty years ago, sometimes more. They’ve served their sentence, and they haven’t even received a speeding ticket since then. But they still can’t move on with their lives, get a job, pay their taxes.” He believes that the proposed changes to the sex offender registry make a lot of sense.

“A lot of these people are not dangerous, they should be able move on with their lives, and do so without being a burden to anyone else. And the police should focus their resources where they’re really needed.”

– Steve Davidson


[1] California Sex Offender Management Board, ‘ Tiering Background Paper’, page 2, available at http://www.cce.csus.edu/portal/admin/handouts/Tiering Background Paper FINAL FINAL 4-2-14.pdf