A Traumatic Label: The Virginia Sex Offender Registry
One of the highest trending podcasts right now is In the Dark, an eight-episode podcast miniseries about the child abduction of Jacob Wetterling 27 years ago. His remains were not found and the case was not solved until September 1, 2016. While the podcast is focused on the ineptitude of the police, it is also notable because of what the Wetterling case created: the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, or the Wetterling Act, for short.
The Wetterling Act was passed by the United States Congress in 1994. It required all states to create a Registry that lists anyone who commits a sexually violent crime or a crime against children. A later law required that information to be available to the public; information is power and protection, or so it was deemed. That has led to the rise of websites that now allow us to search for sex offenders near our homes.
Our Right to Know?
Sex crimes are scary. It only makes sense that we, as a society, have taken these steps to protect ourselves. Information about sex offenders can only help us, right? Aren’t all of these things good for us?
As always, the answer is that it depends. Certainly, these things can be good. Jacob Wetterling’s abduction and murder could have been avoided if the public knew about the repeated actions of Danny Heinrich, his abductor and murderer.
What Constitutes A Worthy Crime?
In compliance with the Wetterling Act, Virginia has created the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry. A quick look at the list of eligible crimes shows what you would expect: rape, sexual battery, child prostitution, etc. If someone is convicted of a crime on this list, he/she must register as a sex offender. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, on the federal level, have their own databases that compile the states’ sex offender registries in one central location.
There are, however, increasing problems with the Registry. Slate did a series a couple of years ago to highlight the major problems: outlier offenses, how long sex offenders remain on the list, and how much people lose when they are forced to be on the Registry. In Virginia, while there are not any outlier offenses that jump out at a person, it is concerning that the Registry is usually for life. The only way to be removed from it is to petition the circuit court after a period of either 15 or 25 years, depending on the offense.
A hearing must be held. At the hearing, the offender’s criminal history, registration history, and re-registration history are all discussed. The court can approve or deny the petition. If approved, a person’s name will be removed from the Registry; if denied, the person must wait two years to try again.
It can be an arduous process. Perhaps this is why the latest count of sex offender registries nationwide shows around 750,000 people in the database.
What Does It Mean to be a Sex Offender?
In Virginia, you become ineligible for multiple forms of employment once you are convicted of a sex offense, most of which involve caring for the elderly or children. You also might lose the ability to receive a “horse racing permit (gaming),” which seems very random.
Even more damaging is the stigma that comes from the label of being a sex offender. Anyone can search a website to see if you live in their neighborhood. They get your information, your own address, and a picture of what you look like. You become an immediate danger, a threat, especially to their children. Remember, this label normally lasts for life so it does not matter if this was a one-time incident from decades ago. The label might never entirely go away.
Much has been written about what is wrong with the Registry and how it can or should be reformed. The bottom line, though, is that all of those things – if they ever occur – will take place in the future. If you are facing a conviction for a crime that requires your name being added to the Sex Offender Registry, then you need help now. If this is you, call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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