By Guy Hamilton-Smith . . .
On October 30th, the State Department announced that passports of people who are required to register as sex offenders because of an offense involving a minor will be marked with a “unique identifier” that will read:
The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor, and is a covered sex offender pursuant to 22 United States Code Section 212b(c)(l).
The law which occasions this requirement, International Megan’s Law (IML), was enacted in 2016 under President Obama. In addition to the identifier requirement, IML allows for existing passports of those on the registry to be revoked, and imposes criminal penalties on them for failure to provide the government with advance notice of international travel plans.
While U.S. law already provided for destination countries to be put on notice regarding the travel plans of those on the sex offender registry, IML ratchets things up by requiring the person to carry the government’s “identifier” with them wherever they go abroad.
Ostensibly, the rationale underlying IML and policies like it, such as its namesake, Megan’s Law — the legal and pseudo-colloquial term for the sex offender registry — is this: those on the registry have a high rate of reoffending; therefore, their international movements ought to be tracked and destination counties put on notice when those on the registry travel abroad. Indeed, in the text of the pre-amble to IML, it is stated that “known child-sex offenders are traveling internationally,” implying a connection between those on the sex offender registry and sex tourism, even though this connection is unsupported by evidence.
Like most legislation of this kind, IML received little serious debate and was quickly signed into law.
While IML and similar laws are packaged as a way to prevent sexual violence and exploitation, they do little to nothing to meet those objectives because they make assumptions about sexual offending that are incorrect.
For instance, people who have been convicted of sexual offenses generally have one of the lowest rates of re-offense out of any class of criminal. Dozens of studies have consistently confirmed this finding, including research from the U.S. Department of Justice. Along similar lines, a 2008 time-series analysis of 170,000 unique sex offenses found that 95.9% of the time, the perpetrator was a first-time offender.
In other words, nearly all reported sexual offending is being perpetrated by people who are not on a registry.
In light of the evidence, the argument that IML and other sex offense policies misdirect resources and attention from actual causes and obfuscate actual solutions is compelling. Experts such as John Hopkins professor and Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse Elizabeth Letourneau have argued that, instead of focusing our attention and resources on sex offenders and criminal justice, we ought to focus on education and prevention efforts.