The term sex offender refers to an individual who has committed a sex-related crime. While each jurisdiction has different statutes concerning what is considered a sex crime, certain crimes, such as rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, and sex trafficking, are widely accepted as sex crimes. In some jurisdictions, however, people may be charged with a crime simply for engaging in sexual behavior that remains an illegal act in the state’s laws. Most states have abolished laws prohibiting certain sexual acts that occur between consenting adults, in the privacy of their own homes, which primarily targeted same-sex couples. To explore this concept, consider the following sex offender definition.
Definition of Sex Offender
- A person convicted of a crime involving sex, including rape, molestation, and production or distribution of child pornography.
What is a Sex Offender
According to the law, a sex offender is an individual who has been convicted of a sex-related crime, or of attempting to commit a sex-related crime. Also referred to as a “sex abuser,” or “sexual offender,” an individual convicted of a sex crime is, in most cases, required to register with the state’s sex offender registry, which monitors and places restrictions on their activities.
Any illegal act that involves illegal, forced, or coerced sexual conduct against another person is considered a sex crime. While this definition takes many forms, crimes that are known to classify a perpetrator as a sex offender include:
- Sexual assault
- Statutory rape
- Sexual abuse of a minor
- Corruption of a minor
- Child pornography
- Prostitution (in some circumstances)
- Sex trafficking
- Transporting a person across jurisdictions with the intent of engaging in sexual activities
- Sodomy or Bestiality (in some jurisdictions)
- Genital mutilation
In some states, certain offenses that are not sexually motivated can result in being classified as a sex offender. These may include:
- Unlawful imprisonment
- Public urination
- Indecent exposure
Sex Offender Laws
Sex offender laws are in place to protect individuals from being forced or coerced to engage in sexual activity against their will. These laws also protect individuals who are not physically or mentally able or competent to give consent to sexual activity. When an individual has been convicted of a sexual crime, and released from prison, he is required to follow strict rules and regulations intended to protect the community. This involves registering with law enforcement as a sex offender, so that his whereabouts and activities can be monitored.
While other convicted criminals are free of supervision once they are released, or complete their time of parole or probation, sex offender laws provide law enforcement authority to impose conditions of supervision for an extended period of time, or for life in many cases. These conditions include approving the sex offender’s address and living arrangements, as well as prohibiting access to certain areas, and prohibiting certain types of media and/or internet access. Additionally, many offenders are prohibited from purchasing, possessing, or using drugs, alcohol, and other illegal substances. In most jurisdictions, sex offenders must allow law enforcement officials to search their homes for prohibited items.
Other Sex Offender Laws
Because the laws of every state vary, both in their definition of sex-related crimes, and punishment for such crimes, sex offenders in some jurisdictions are likely to be faced with some very different supervision requirements and penalties. For instance, some states restrict the behavior of sex offenders during Halloween, when costumes commonly hide people’s identities, and children are easily lured into private situations.
Some jurisdictions allow the courts to order chemical treatment, or surgical castration, to lower an offender’s sex drive. Finally, all jurisdictions restrict where a sex offender may live and work. This includes prohibiting a sex offender from living within a certain specified distance from any school, as well as working in an occupation that involves contact with children.
Sex offender Registry
The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006 makes it mandatory for each state to maintain a system to monitor sex offenders after they are released back into the community. The sex offender registry in the United States is in place in order for the government and law enforcement authorities to track and monitor the activities of sex offenders.
Convicted sex offenders are required to register, even if they have completed their criminal sentencing. The registry is a database that stores information about the offenders. According to the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, it is illegal for a sex offender to fail to register, or to update his registration information if changes occur.
National Sex Offender Registry
While each state has its own sex offender registry, the federal government operates a separate system known as the National Sex Offender Registry. This database is maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice, and contains an up-to-date compilation of the sex offender registries of every state in the country.
Tiers of Sex Offenses
In 2007, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was enacted, implementing uniform registration requirements in all 50 states. The Act breaks sexual offenses into tiers of sex offenders, each of which determines the prison term and reporting requirements for various crimes.
Tier III Sex Offenses
Tier III sex offenses are the most serious, as they include crimes punishable by at least one year in prison, and entails sexual abuse committed against a child under the age of 13, or kidnapping of a minor who is not accompanied by an adult. Tier III offenders are required to report for the rest of his life, and to notify local authorities every time he moves.
Tier II Sex Offenses
Tier II sex offenses also include crimes punishable by one year in prison, but involves sex trafficking, transporting an individual with the intent to engage in illegal sexual activities, coercion, and enticement, as well as abusive sexual activity with a minor age 13 or older. Tier II offenses also include soliciting a minor to participate in prostitution, producing or distributing child pornography, or using a minor in a sexual performance. Tier II offenders are required to report for 25 years.
Tier I Sex Offenses
Tier I sex offenses include all sex-related crimes that do not fall into Tier II and III. Tier I offenders are required to register for 10 years, but must maintain a clean record during that time. If the offender commits another sexual offense, or any other crime that is punishable by a year or more in prison, he must register for 15 years after release from prison.
Penalties for Sex Offenders
Penalties for sex offenders vary greatly depending on many factors, but the majority of sex crimes are considered felonies. First time offenders committing minor sex crimes often receive more lenient punishments, but habitual or violent offenders can face serious consequences. When handing down penalties for sex offenders, a judge or jury at the trial will often consider:
- Previous sexual offenses
- Criminal history
- The age of the victim
- The age of the offender
- The nature of the crime
Common penalties for sex offenders include imprisonment, restitution to victims, fines, community service, and an order to register as a sex offender as specified by state law. Some courts also impose additional conditions, such as completing treatment programs or seeking counseling.
Registered Sex Offender
A registered sex offender is an individual who has been convicted in court of a sexual crime, and has been ordered to place his name and other information on the sex offender registry in the jurisdiction in which he resides. Every registered sex offender is required to periodically update his information, and to notify law enforcement if he moves or changes jurisdictions. Some information about registered sex offenders is made available online.
Sex Offender Map
Many states have provided a sex offender map, which allows individuals to search by location, as well as by name. This allows families to determine whether there are registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods, or near their children’s schools. In addition, the federal sex offender registry allows a by-location search, which provides the names, addresses, and photographs of sex offenders living within the chosen distance from the address entered into the form.
Real Life Sex Offender Cases
Because of the wide variety of offenses that are considered to be sex-related, courts across the United States hear and decide sex offender cases every day. While most of these court cases involve the prosecution of sexual offenders, some of them deal with the laws governing sex offenses and offenders.
The Establishment of Residency Requirements for Sex Offenders
In 2002, the state of Iowa became the first to pass a law restricting where sex offenders, who have committed their crimes against minors, may live. The new law prohibited sex offenders, and other offenders found guilty of certain specified crimes, from residing within 2,000 feet of the property on which a school or childcare center stood.
The law immediately became the subject of a civil, class action lawsuit filed by three registered sex offenders, on behalf of all sex offenders who would be affected by the law in the future. The plaintiffs claimed that the residency restrictions imposed by the new law left, in some cases, only small areas of the city in which they could live legally, and that in the case of a small town, sex offenders may be barred from living anywhere within the town.
The local district court ruled that the law was indeed unconstitutional on several grounds, including:
- The law violated the plaintiffs’ right to avoid self-incrimination, as they would be required to report their residency addresses, even if they were living someplace in violation of the law
- The law violated the plaintiffs’ rights to due process
- The law infringed on the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights to decide how to conduct their family affairs, and how to travel
- The law was not tailored in a sufficiently narrow way so as to serve a compelling state interest
The matter was appealed to the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s decision, holding that a sex offender does not have a constitutional right to live wherever he wants. The Appellate court also held that state lawmaker have the discretion of using common sense reasoning in determining what laws are needed to serve the needs of the state, and how to protect the state’s children from sexual offenders.
Following the April 2005 Appeals Court decision, cities and counties within Iowa began enacting their own versions of residency requirements. For example, the city of Des Moines added to the list of restricted places parks, public swimming pools, libraries, and recreational trails.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Felony – A criminal offense punishable by a year or more in jail.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
- Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.