I am adamantly opposed to people sexually abusing children. The idea of some creepy 45 year old having sex with my 10 or 14 year old kid just gives me the willies.
That said, there are varying degrees of sexual "abuse," different types of abusers, and some people convicted of sexual offenses who, in my opinion, should not have been convicted at all.
For example, a 45 year old woman who engages in sexual conduct with a 10 year old child obviously deserves a big punishment. By contrast, a 20 year old woman who on one occasion kisses and fondles a 15 year old teen who is sexually promiscuous, appears to be older, told her he was 18, and was "coming on to her," deserves less punishment, if any at all. In many states, both types of "offenders" would be punished.
As another example, if teens have sex with their teen boyfriends / girlfriends, it seems to me that neither one should be convicted of a sexual offense. But in many states they can be, and are, convicted.
Granted we may not like the idea of our teens having sex, but in some cultures, teens routinely marry and become parents -- it's not exactly unnatural, and absent some evidence of coercion by one or the other, it seems really unfair to convict one and deem the other a "victim" (and based on what, exactly? A year or two age difference between them? Whichever one's parents called the cops first?) when it is most likely that they both were happy to engage in the act!
And in other circumstances, the alleged "abuser" may be the victim of other abuse, such as when a child who is sexually abused by his parent then sexually abuses a younger sibling. Perhaps treatment instead of incarceration might be a better idea.
The collateral consequences of a conviction follow a person for life, in many cases. People are required to register on those "sex offender lists" for the rest of their lives.
Registering causes all sorts of nightmares for the registrants. They can't live within certain distances of schools, day care centers, and other places where kids congregate, which severely limits their options for where to live. In many states, they are not even allowed to walk within a certain distance of these places, which severely limits their movements, affecting everything from how they get to work or the grocery store -- is there even a public bus stop they are allowed to wait at? Is there a route to that bus stop from their home that doesn't take them past the school? Can they even take a job at that place if it is too close to a school? -- to whether they can even attend church (do kids attend? Probably can't go, then).
Many landlords won't even rent to known sex offenders, again severely limiting their ability to find a place to live.
Many employers can't or won't hire known sex offenders, severely limiting their ability to find a job.
Moreover, the registries are public, which means anyone who wants to target a sex offender list registrant can easily find their photo and address online. Registrants are often subjected to harassment, thefts, vandalism, assaults, or worse - up to and including murder.
All of this might -- I said MIGHT, not would -- be acceptable if this were their only punishment. But it's not. This all occurs *after* the offender has been released from prison. In other words, they have supposedly served their time, and should be allowed to get on with their lives, but they can't.
All of this also might -- I said might, not would -- be acceptable if the list were reserved only for the worst offenders -- those who had actual sexual intercourse with young children, those who forcibly raped their victims, or who were substantially older than their victims and should have known better, or some other way of determining the relative "evil" of their crime.
But is this lifetime of punishment really merited for a 20 year old who touches a 16 year old's breast, after she told him she was 18? Or what about the 13 year old who is sexually abused by his mother or father and acts out by sexually abusing his 11 year old sister? Should he really be subjected to a lifetime of punishment? Or should we maybe, just maybe, try some sort of counseling and give him a second chance?
And should someone who is now 70 and has been married to his wife for 30 years and hasn't so much as looked askance at a teenager still be suffering the consequences of a conviction for having sex with his 16 year old girlfriend when he was 20? Isn't there some point at which we say, enough's enough, he's so totally not likely to reoffend, let's let him off the list?
In most states, though, once you're on the list, there is no way off the list. And that seems fundamentally awful to me, especially for those whose offenses might be considered relatively "minor." (Again, for the truly heinous offenses, I have no problem with the equivalent of a lifetime of punishment, and for really minor "non-offense" offenses, I think they shouldn't have to register at all... but for the offenses in between, it seems to me that a lifetime on the sex offender registry is often out of proportion to the crime alleged and to the likelihood of recidivism, and that there ought to be a way off the list.) Shades of gray, people.
Even worse, the lists are so overcrowded that they don't even help. They are supposed to allow people to be aware of the sex offenders in their neighborhood, town, or city, so that they can make sure their kids avoid them.
As a parent, I have looked at these lists. One problem with them is that the very limited description of the offense of conviction does not allow you to even determine whether the person was a 20 year old convicted of having sex with his 17 year old, very willing girlfriend (and thus probably not actually dangerous) or a 45 year old creep who forcibly raped a 12 year old. Another problem is that the sheer number of registrants makes it impossible to actually protect your kids from them. It would be impossible to memorize all of their names, photos, and addresses and would be ridiculous (and likely would cause more psychological harm than it would prevent) to try to make your kids memorize them all and avoid them... Especially when so many of the registrants are, in fact, extremely unlikely to reoffend and/or were convicted of offenses that should not, in my opinion, have been labeled criminal acts. If the lists were shorter, they MIGHT be more useful.
Here is an article that says it better than I could, because it comes from a first-hand perspective, rather than my more theoretical view as a lawyer.
Check it out. Then let me know what you think.