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November 9, 2017

Making the case against International Megan's Law

Guy Hamilton-Smith has this new commentary at In Justice Today headlined "We’re Putting Sex Offender Stamps on Passports. Here’s Why It Won’t Curb Sex Tourism & Trafficking." Here are excerpts:

On October 30th, the State Department announced that passports of people who are required to register as sex offenders because of an offense involving a minor will be marked with a “unique identifier” that will read: "The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor, and is a covered sex offender pursuant to 22 United States Code Section 212b(c)(l)."

The law which occasions this requirement, International Megan’s Law (IML), was enacted in 2016 under President Obama.  In addition to the identifier requirement, IML allows for existing passports of those on the registry to be revoked, and imposes criminal penalties on them for failure to provide the government with advance notice of international travel plans.  While U.S. law already provided for destination countries to be put on notice regarding the travel plans of those on the sex offender registry, IML ratchets things up by requiring the person to carry the government’s “identifier” with them wherever they go abroad....

While IML and similar laws are packaged as a way to prevent sexual violence and exploitation, they do little to nothing to meet those objectives because they make assumptions about sexual offending that are incorrect.  For instance, people who have been convicted of sexual offenses generally have one of the lowest rates of re-offense out of any class of criminal. Dozens of studies have consistently confirmed this finding, including research from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Along similar lines, a 2008 time-series analysis of 170,000 unique sex offenses found that 95.9% of the time, the perpetrator was a first-time offender.  In other words, nearly all reported sexual offending is being perpetrated by people who are not on a registry.

In light of the evidence, the argument that IML and other sex offense policies misdirect resources and attention from actual causes and obfuscate actual solutions is compelling.  Experts such as John Hopkins professor and Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse Elizabeth Letourneau have argued that, instead of focusing our attention and resources on sex offenders and criminal justice, we ought to focus on education and prevention efforts....

This conclusion is impelled with equal force in the context of international travel.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office and State Department quietly admitted that there is no mass exodus of people on the registry traveling to sex tourism destinations to engage in rape and child molestation: they identified three cases over a five-year period where a person on the registry was convicted for a sexual offense overseas.  To put that number in perspective, there are presently more than 800,000 people on a sex offender registry in the United States in 2017.

IML is more than simply ineffective at accomplishing what its authors have intended.  As commentators have observed, the marking of “a basic badge of citizenship” with a proverbial Scarlet Letter is nearly unprecedented in history.  The freedom of movement, including the right to leave one’s own country, is a basic and fundamental human right outlined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Historically, the state marking the travel and civil documents of despised groups was only a prologue to further encroachments on fundamental rights.

As recent years have demonstrated, sex offenders have become a proving ground for law and policy that the public would (and should) otherwise find abhorrent.  IML, and its attendant marking of the sine qua non of international travel documents, is just the latest high-profile example.  By misdirecting attention and resources away from actual causes and solutions, policies like IML obfuscate real solutions to the problems presented by sex tourism, trafficking, violence, and exploitation, and reinforce a narrative that is wholly divorced from facts.  Because of this, policies like IML will only ultimately serve to perpetuate the very harms that they seek to prevent.

November 9, 2017 at 03:47 PM | Permalink


The problem with the article is that premise is wrong. It assumes that the purpose of public policy is to solve public problems. That is untrue. The purpose of public policy is to make the advocates of the public policy feel good about themselves by taking a stance against something that they perceive to be a wrong. Whether the target of the policy is actually wrong or whether the policy solves that wrong are not relevant to the discussion.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 9, 2017 7:36:29 PM

Yes Daniel, we've been living in a make believe world for a long, long time now, such as an undeserved, inordinate unquestioned trust in government and media, ergo all "discussions" are irrelevant. I can even imagine that nine random baboons in black pajamas can make better decisions (both legal and based in reality) than the current USSC.

Posted by: albeed | Nov 9, 2017 9:22:11 PM

I think that anyone could summarize Mr. Berman's fact based comments in four words:
It' a witch hunt...And for all the non-contact offenders: It's a WITCH HUNT!

Posted by: tommyc | Nov 9, 2017 10:35:42 PM

Correction: Mr. Smith's commentary.

Posted by: tommyc | Nov 9, 2017 10:47:00 PM

The first comment is one of those "I'm just being honest here, don't be upset with me since it hurts your feelings" sort of comments that is an over-correction.

It's pretty well earned in the area of sexual offenses like this though one can understand how sex crimes vs children and the like leads to trying to do something that stops even a few more cases. (As the article notes, pragmatically, the approach is not too productive.) Still, even there, "feeling good" is a rough way of expressing things like fear and distaste of a certain group.

But, public policy is every single thing out there. Actual results do manage to count for things in the world. Traffic sign placement or any number of mundane things actually take into consideration real life facts. Human nature mixes in a "feel good" factor but we are not merely emotional creatures who are not influenced by reason.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 10, 2017 8:24:22 AM

So a pedophile travels to Thailand. Will his passport get him immediate referrals and guidance to the child prostitution locations?

Every other government remedy has worsened matters for victims.

Posted by: David Behar | Nov 10, 2017 10:14:30 AM

Hey, Joe. The removal of traffic lights from a German town, ended all traffic accidents. Government does nothing well or even right. You big government morons, you dirty lawyer traitors, really stink.

Posted by: David Behar | Nov 10, 2017 10:31:58 AM

From what I've read, plans are already in the works to challenge this ruling.

Posted by: kat | Nov 10, 2017 11:44:41 AM

Don't forget the weak-minded electorate. Seems like an astonishing amount of federal legislation is pure pandering to some segment of the electorate, that doesn't know what it actually wants or what is good for it, but making them feel good about something is paramount.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Nov 10, 2017 7:29:47 PM

People are wrong to state that the IML is an attempt to prevent crimes. Of course it's not. Its purpose is to harass and ostracize people and provide big government jobs and it will do what is intended.

Posted by: FRegistryTerrorists | Nov 11, 2017 12:11:29 PM

I strongly urge the Congress to pass a law making a registry of false accusers, so government officials are warned about their credibility.

Posted by: David Behar | Nov 12, 2017 1:36:54 AM

Per Davids comments, no that will not happen. US Registered sex offenders are effectively barred from traveling overseas to any other countries. The requirement to notify the US government of any travel plans outside of the US, results in notification to Inter-Pol. Once that agency is contacted the travel information is forwarded to the destination country which most likely will bar the RSO from entering the country.

Posted by: Steve | Nov 12, 2017 4:09:28 PM

Thank you, Steve. Usually, government remedies have an opposite, unintended consequence. Glad to read your comment.

Posted by: David Behar | Nov 14, 2017 3:37:02 PM

Maybe they will finally get together and give this criminal government a mark as well in the shape of the entry hole from a 9mm slug. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of neo-nazi wanna bees

Posted by: Rodsmith3510 | Nov 25, 2017 6:54:28 PM

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