The history of child sex abuse legislation in the United States follows a well-worn pattern: a chilling incident rouses public anger and fear, to which lawmakers respond with expansive, emotionally charged legislative action.
The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Act, the first law to establish federal guidelines requiring states to implement sex offender registries, was named after an 11-year-old Minnesotan who was kidnapped and murdered by a suspected pedophile. Megan’s Law, mandating public notification about registered sex offenders when deemed necessary, was introduced directly in response to the brutal rape and murder in New Jersey of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a recidivist sex offender neighbor. And the expansion of the sex offenders registry to include juvenile registrants came in part in response to the assault of an 8-year-old Wisconsin girl by a 14-year-old boy.
It’s an understandable pattern, but a dangerous one. Premised on extreme horrors, sex offender laws have constructed an overreaching, excessively punitive registry system, which empirical studies and human rights advocates have found may cause more harm than good. Nonetheless, public support for a wide range of sex offender policy and law is consistently high, and the pattern of reactive legislation is rarely challenged. Such is the case at present in Michigan, where a flurry of legislation has been proposed in response to the case of Larry Nassar, the sports doctor accused of molesting more than 300 children and young people over a two-decade period.