Chelsea King Case Brings Attention to Sex Offender Policy

State eNews Issue #42 | March 17, 2010

A registered sex offender was arrested and charged with the rape and murder of San Diego high school student Chelsea King March 1. John Gardner had previously served just five years in prison for committing lewd and lascivious acts on a 13-year-old, despite the recommendations by a court psychiatrist that he serve a much longer sentence because he presented a continued danger to underage girls in the community.

Reactions to this crime mirror those of other victims of sex offenders who have become household names, including Megan Kanka and Jessica Lunsford. An outraged community is wondering why a dangerous man like Gardner was living among them, and is now calling for harsher penalties for sex offenders. Once again, policymakers will be called on to identify and implement effective policies and programs that address the complex issues related to sex offenders.  

This is no easy matter. As of December 2009, there were more than 704,000 sex offenders registered in the U.S. Up to 60 percent of convicted offenders live in the community under probation or parole supervision, either directly after sentencing or after a period of incarceration.

This effort is made more challenging by the 2006 passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. One of its provisions, known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA for short, seeks to standardize registration and notification requirements across the country. As a result, states are required to make numerous changes to their existing sex offender registries and notification requirements, or face a loss of federal funding.

The Council of State Governments has recently completed a multi-year project designed to educate policymakers on effective sex offender management strategies. Under this initiative funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, CSG, in partnership with the American Probation and Parole Association, Association of Paroling Authorities International and The Center for Sex Offender Management, has tracked trends in state sex offender laws, hosted national forums for state officials, and developed and disseminated educational materials on state policy options for the management of sex offenders. APPA is affiliated with CSG.

CSG released a final report detailing the conclusions of this project March 15. It details the ways in which common myths about sex offenders continue to influence policy decisions. For example, many recently enacted state policies presume sex offenders reoffend at a rate much higher than the average criminal offender, that they cannot be rehabilitated and that they generally perpetrate their crimes against strangers. None of these assumptions is grounded in research.

Also available is a legislative report that details the actions taken by state legislatures on the issue of sex offenders. In the 2007-08 legislative biennium, state legislatures considered at least 1,500 bills related to sex offenders; at least 275 of those bills became law.  A policy brief on SORNA and its effects on state sex offender management policies was also released in January 2010.

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