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Jeffrey Epstein and the Problem With the Sex Offender Registry

The sex offender registry is a valuable tool. But, as the Jeffrey Epstein case shows, there are also myriad flaws in the system.

Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier who was recently charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of underage children in July, is currently in jail. He was initially indicted for similar crimes in 2007 but was given a sweetheart deal by then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta that gave him 13 months in a county jail and a work-release program where he could leave every day to continue his business. When Epstein was arrested again for what amounted to essentially the same crimes, Acosta stepped down as Labor Secretary in the Trump administration. Now, Epstein could be given 45 years in prison for sex trafficking of children. It’s clear that he never stopped his predatory behavior

Here’s the thing: Epstein was registered as a sex offender in Florida and New York after 2007, but was not registered in New Mexico, a place where he owned a palatial estate called the Zorro Ranch. Today, the compound is at the epicenter of the investigation into his sex trafficking crimes after he was accused of abuse by at least one minor at the estate.

So why wasn’t Epstein on New Mexico’s sex offender registry? He stood accused of assaulting someone who was 17 at the time of his conviction, even though he was initially accused of abusing her when she was 14. Seventeen is the age of consent in New Mexico. That loophole allowed him to avoid being registered as a sex offender in New Mexico entirely, and he continued to live on his private estate, where he likely committed many crimes. 

So why is there no cohesive sex offender registry? Epstein’s lack of inclusion on New Mexico’s registry might be surprising, but it is not to those who follow sex offender registry law, like Camille Cooper, the VP of Public Policy at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was passed. It provided that states were required to publicly disclose people in their state who were Tier 2 and 3 sex offenders.

“When they implemented [the Adam Walsh Act,] it was to make sure that there was one place the public could go to find information on sex offenders living all over the country, whether they were prosecuted federally, or in state court,” says Cooper. “It doesn’t always work as well as I think they intended it to, but that’s the goal.”

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Because of that act, anyone can get on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) and look up the name of someone they know or even their own address to see if registered sex offenders who committed state or federal offenses live near them. As is evident in the Epstein case, however, the list falls short of expectations. 

Why? As Cooper explains, when the Walsh Act passed, the goal was to get all of the states and territories to comply with the federal sex offender registry laws, but every state has different ages of consent, as well as different codes as to what qualifies as a sex-offender registry qualifying crime. That meant that what someone might be required to register for in Texas might not be what someone is required to register for in Alabama. 

“Literally every state is different in how they comply with federal sex offender registration laws,” says Cooper. As such, people evade the list or are only on the list in a few states and not others. Sex offenders could also move to states that don’t compel them to register as a sex offender, as Epstein did. 

Cooper offers an example. Let’s say that there’s a state where any kind of sex crime against someone under the age of 18 was registry-offense eligible. An offender could go to the next state. And it might be that you have a window where all crimes under someone who is 16 are registry-offense eligible. If they are between 16 and 18, there has to be an age differential to be registry-offense eligible because they are making exceptions for what they call Romeo and Juliet cases, and statutory rape case. That my not be an eligible offense.

“That’s how the age of consent complicates what crimes end up as sex-offender registry eligible,” says Cooper.

In other words: it’s complicated. Even more complicated is the fact that many offenders drop off the registry altogether. If someone is convicted of a registry-eligible offense, whoever runs that state registry, be it the police or the state’s Department of Justice, is required to register them. But the offender has to present him or herself to the court on a specific date on a specific schedule set by the state: that could be once a year, once a month, or once every six months, says Cooper.

“They have to prove that they are living at the address that is ascribed to them on their registration. But a lot of offenders abscond from the registry. They just fail to register [or show up at court], and then they are at large, and we don’t know where they are,” says Cooper. Failing to register is a big sign that a sex offender my be offending again, and resources must be used to find those offenders.

The other issue with the offender registry is the fact that parents can be lulled into thinking that just because a neighbor is on the sex offender registry list, the police are monitoring them and making sure they are not re-offending. That isn’t true.  

“People think the registry means that law enforcement is watching these guys and they know what they are doing. They’re not,” she says. “All it means if that this person has registered an address, that’s probably where he lives. If you happen to live on that same street, you tell your kids so your kids don’t go to his house to play video games or fall prey to him.” 

Of course, this doesn’t mean the registry is useless. As a tool, it’s helpful to parents on a local level who want to check out their neighborhood or might be looking to move to a different state. It also is helpful for those who are doing background checks for youth organizations like YMCA, Big Brother, or Big Sister.

While the NSOPW is a deeply valuable tool, Cooper notes that the vast majority of sexual abuse of minors comes from people parents already know. So above all else, parents need to be vigilant. 

“Just because someone isn’t on the registry, doesn’t mean that they are not a sex offender… What’s more important is recognizing the signs of grooming,” says Cooper. “Parents need to look for signs. If someone wants to spend time alone with your kid, that’s a red flag.”

While the Sex Offender Registry List is a valuable, important tool for parents, it’s by no means an exhaustive list of sex offenders and there are significant loopholes. Even of those who have been caught, only about six percent of offenders are on the list and are registry-eligible. There are many abusers who have never been caught and won’t be for quite some time. People also abscond from the list with regularity. 

All parents can do is continue to talk to their kids about grooming, inappropriate and appropriate behavior and touch, and consult the list if they are concerned. Protecting kids from sexual abuse is no easy job. But it is a parent’s job to do.