What’s Wrong with the Sex Offender Registry — According to Jacob Wetterling’s Mom

Readers: This article is one of the best things I’ve ever read about our increasingly cruel, counter-productive sex offender laws — laws in place because of excess fear and excess pandering when it comes to our kids.

It appears in City Pages, a Twin Cities alternative newsweekly, and focuses on Patty Wetterling, whose 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted by a stranger in a small Minnesota town in 1989 and never found. Wetterling went on to lobby successfully for the first national sex offender legislation, but two decades of learning the facts about child safety and sexual abuse has changed her views profoundly. The author of this piece, Jennifer Bleyer, is available for interviews. Contact her through her website, here. Below is a much-shortened version of her piece. – L


by Jennifer Bleyer

Virtually all the major laws regarding sex offenders have been passed in the wake of grisly, high profile crimes against kids and, like Megan’s Law, they bear victims’ names as somber memorials. The laws tend to fuel the impression that sex offenders are a uniform class of creepy strangers lurking in the shadows who are bound to attack children over and over again.

That’s what Patty Wetterling used to believe about sex offenders, too. Yet over the course of two decades immersed in the issue, she found her assumptions slowly chipped away.  Contrary to the widely held fear of predator strangers, she learned that abductions like Jacob’s are extremely rare, and that 90 percent of sexual offenses against children are committed by family members or acquaintances. While sex offenders are stereotyped as incurable serial abusers, a 2002 Bureau of Justice study found that they in fact have distinctly low recidivism rate of just 5.3 percent for other sex crimes within three years of being released from prison.

Though the term “sex offender” itself seems to reflexively imply child rapist, a broadening number of so-called victimless crimes are forcing people onto the rolls. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 28 states require registration for consensual sex between teenagers, 13 for public urination, 32 for exposing genitals in public, and five for soliciting adult prostitutes. And many sex offenders are really children themselves: Juveniles make up more than a third of those convicted of sex offenses against children, and their high amenability to treatment suggests that their youthful mistakes don’t predict a lifetime of abuse to come.

Wetterling, a 63-year-old grandmother with a warm smile, soft blue eyes and a folksy manner, has quietly emerged as perhaps the most unlikely voice questioning sex offender laws. Although she remains a prominent advocate for child safety, she has expressed gnawing doubts over the past several years about how we deal with sex offenders, a striking stance for someone who has been personally affected in such a devastating way.

“We have an intolerance for sexual violence, which I agree with,” she said recently. “The solution that’s been sold over the years is lock ‘em up and throw away the key. But we’ve cast such a broad net that we’re catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who just screwed up. Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?”

She has kept coming back to the same nagging feeling: These men are not the same as the man who abducted Jacob. They’re not all serial child abusers who have no capacity to change.

“We’ve caught a lot of people in the net who could have been helped,” she says. “We’ve been elevating sex offender registration and community notification and punishment for 20-some years, and a wise and prudent thing would be to take a look at what’s working. Instead we let our anger drive us.”


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