For people convicted of certain sexual offenses, the end of their prison sentence is not the end of the legal restrictions imposed on them. Sex offenders must register periodically with state authorities for years after release, and their status as a sex offender affects and limits many aspects of their lives.
Registration is not the only consequence. The state may also have them committed to a mental institution if they were convicted of a sub-set of sex crimes. The federal government has also enacted a sex offender registration and civil commitment law, as explained in Federal Registration and Commitment Laws for Sex Offenders.
A "sex offender" is defined by the laws of the state in which the offender is convicted or resides.
Sex offenders include people convicted of the obvious types of sexual crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, and child molestation. But they include people convicted of other crimes as well. For purposes of sex offender registration laws, a sex offender may include a person who was convicted of any of the following, depending on the state of conviction or residence:
Even a minor convicted of an offense that is deemed a "sex offense" must register as a sex offender.
A person convicted of a sex offense must register in the state where convicted and also in any state in which the offender later lives. For example, if a person was convicted of child molestation in Idaho, but moves to Kansas a few months after release from prison, he will have to register both in Idaho and then in Kansas after moving there. And, if a person is convicted of a crime that is not a sex offense in the state of conviction (say, knowing transmission of an STD) but then after release moves to a state where the same crime would have been a sex offense if he'd been convicted in the new state of residence, he may have to register as a sex offender in the new state.
Every state in the U.S. now has a sex offender registration law on its books. Part of the reason for this unanimity is that the federal government requires such laws in order for states to receive certain public funds. Sex offender registration laws differ from state to state, but all require that identifying information about a person convicted of specified sexual offenses be provided to state and local police departments. Information about a sex offender that must be registered typically includes:
In most states, the local law enforcement agency must make the offender's registration information available to the public, and post identifying information about the offender on a website containing a nationwide sex offender database. But some states, like Massachusetts for example, make exceptions for low-level, low-risk offenders, and permit only law enforcement access to their information.
Under federal law (discussed in Federal Registration and Commitment Laws for Sex Offenders), states also must notify the schools, volunteer organizations, public housing authorities, social service agencies, and other entities of the presence of a registered sex offender in their area.
Registered sex offenders are barred from holding certain jobs (for example, at schools and daycare centers), and from entering school or daycare premises. Most of the state sex offender registration laws require a convicted sex offender to stay a specified distance away from a public or private school, playground, daycare center, and other locations where children are present. This restriction applies even to convicted offenders whose offense did not in any way involve a child.
The length of time a person must register varies from state to state but, in general, registration is required for years and often decades, and even for life in some states.
Although a person's duty to register might end at a certain point, the public registry exists forever—the online databases never really go away, like everything else on the Internet. So, sex offender registration effectively lasts forever. Employers, neighbors, friends, and family members can find the offender on the registration databases. Needless to say, this can seriously affect all aspects of the offender's life.
And, even if an offender has complied with registration requirements and demonstrated remorse and rehabilitation, these efforts won't reduce the length of time that registration is required. There is no "good time" credit toward the required registration period.
In addition to the hassle of registering and the effect registration has on finding a job or housing, registered sex offenders often encounter other issues. They have at times been threatened, targeted by their neighbors for eviction, and even physically attacked. In many states, this kind of harassment of registrants is illegal, and people can be prosecuted or sued for doing it.
A significant additional risk to being convicted of certain sex offenses (including indecent exposure and possessing child pornography, in some states) is the possibly of being designated a sexually violent predator subject to civil commitment. For more information, see State Civil Commitment for Sex Offenders.
If you're currently facing criminal charges involving any sexual conduct, talk to a lawyer right away. Choose a local attorney with several years of criminal defense experience. An experienced local lawyer will know whether any defenses will apply, and whether the facts of your case might permit a plea deal that could avoid a conviction requiring sex offender registration.