NEW YORK (AFP) — Strict US sex crime laws lead to harassment and ostracism of former offenders but do not necessarily protect children from rape or molestation, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday.
The rights group said state and federal laws often violate the basic rights of people convicted of sex crimes and do not differentiate between repeat offenders and those who may have engaged in consensual sex as a teenager.
"Human Rights Watch shares the public's goal of protecting children from sex abuse," said Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. "But current laws are ill-conceived and poorly crafted."
According to US law, adults and some juveniles have to register their address and personal information with law enforcement agencies if they have been convicted of a sex crime.
As a result, there are more than 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, "including individuals convicted of non-violent crimes such as consensual sex between teenagers, prostitution, and public urination, as well as those who committed their only offenses decades ago," HRW said.
"The public believes everyone on a sex offender registry is dangerous," said Fellner. "But what's the point of requiring registration by a teenager who exposed himself as a high-school prank or even by someone who molested a child 30 years ago?"
The rights group released its 146-page report after two years of research on the impact of sex offender laws, which it said included more than 200 interviews with law enforcement officials, former offenders and victims.
Among the main problems are "publicly accessible online sex offender registries that provide a former offender's criminal history, photograph, current address, and often other information such as license plate numbers," it said.
These records are easily accessible by anyone with an Internet connection and "there is little evidence that this form of community notification prevents sexual violence."
The report said at least "four registrants have been targeted and killed by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries ... other registrants have been driven to suicide."
In addition, HRW found fault with laws that prevent registered offenders from living within a designated distance (500 to 2,500 feet or 150 to 760 meters) from schools, playgrounds or daycare centers.
"Many of these restrictions apply even to offenders who were not convicted of abusing children," HRW said, urging such laws to be eliminated.
"With regard to offenders who did victimize children, available data suggest that prohibiting them from living near any place where children gather does not reduce the likelihood that they will re-offend."
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