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Sex Offenders and Sex Offenses: Overview

Policymakers have long struggled to implement effective ways to protect the public from sex offenders. A sex offender is a person who has been convicted of certain sex crimes, such as sexual assault or sexual conduct with a minor. Because of the seriousness of sex offenses, a number of factors come into play when it comes to sentencing and penalties for sex offenders at both the state and federal levels.

On one hand, punishments have increasingly been focused on rehabilitation and prevention of recidivism, but on the other hand, victims and advocates often push for harsh penalties and restrictions that protect the public from people they view as predators.

This article provides a brief overview of sex offenders and sex offenses.

Sex Offenses: State Laws

The definition of a sex crime differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, there are core offenses that are common to most jurisdictions, but some states outlaw additional particular acts. The common sex offenses fall into the following categories:

  • Crimes against adults: rape, sexual assault, and marital rape
  • Crimes against children: pornography, exploitation, molestation, abduction
  • Crimes against nature: bestiality, incest
  • Crimes against moral order: prostitution, solicitation, indecent exposuresodomy.

Most states, such as New York, have a long list of items that are considered sex offenses. Often the list of prohibited acts is intuitive, but sometimes statutes have been amended to address particular problems. For instance, Alabama has targeted school employees having sex with students as a specific sex crime.

Sexual Offender Registry

States and the federal government have both established sex offender registries. These are databases of information about convicted sex offenders. They require persons convicted of sex crimes to list themselves on the registry, failing to do so is considered a new criminal offense. The statutes establishing the registries also have compliance requirements that prevent offenders from living too close to schools and mandate that they notify officials when they change their address. Failure to abide by the registration requirements will often result in the sex offender returning to incarceration.

In addition to punishing explicit sexual acts, states also make it a crime for any person required to register as a sex offender who then fails to register or otherwise violates the sex offender registration statutes.

Sex Offenses Involving Computers

More recently, states have begun to define certain behaviors in conjunction with the internet or the electronic transfer of data. All states, including California, make it a crime to distribute images of a child engaged in sexual conduct via a computer, and federal law prohibits this if the distribution uses the Internet, the mail, or otherwise travels across state lines.

Sex Offenses: State vs. Federal Law

Most offenses involving criminal sexual conduct fall within the jurisdiction of state law, but federal law also includes a number of sexual offenses. The offenses are found in Title 18 of the United States Code. Some of the federal offenses specifically apply to sexual offenses committed within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in federal prison. Other crimes involve offenders who cross state or international borders to commit, or commission, of a sexual offense.

For example, 18 U.S.C. § 2251 makes it illegal to knowingly print, publish, or cause to be made, "any notice or advertisement seeking or offering to receive, exchange, buy, produce, display, distribute, or reproduce any visual depiction involving the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. This statute also applies when such person knows that such notice or advertisement will be, or has been, transported in interstate or foreign commerce by any means, including by computer."

Sex Offenses: Federal Law

Federal sexual offenses focus on offenses involving children, the production of prohibited pornography, and interstate travel for the purposes of prohibited sexual activity. Some of these statutes include:

  • Selling or buying of children (§ 2251A(a)(b))
  • Certain activities relating to material involving the sexual exploitation of minors, including both distribution and receipt of visual depictions in books, magazines, periodicals, films, and videotapes (§ 2252)
  • Certain activities relating to material constituting or containing child pornography (§ 2252A)
  • Transporting an individual in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent that the individual engage in prostitution or other illegal sexual activity (§ 2421)
  • Interstate or foreign travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a juvenile (§ 2423(b))
  • Use of interstate facilities to transmit information about an individual under the age of 16, with "the intent to entice, encourage, offer, or solicit that minor to engage in any sexual activity that can be charged as a criminal offense." (§ 2425)

Sex Offense Penalties and Sentencing

As with any criminal offense, the nature and circumstances of the offense and the backgrounds of the parties involved will affect the seriousness of the sentences and penalties that may be imposed. The states vary widely in the length of sentence terms. As an example, incest is either a class 4 or class 3 felony in Colorado, depending on the age of those involved, and carries a punishment range of two to 12 years in prison. On the other hand, in Montana, such an offender would face a 100-year prison term if the incest involves a child under 12 years old.

Any sexual offense involving children or violence will have a harsh sentence. For instance, a violation of the federal statutes involving the sexual exploitation of children has a minimum sentence of 15 years. Charges of first-degree rape or sexual assault will be punished by 15 years to life imprisonment, depending on the state and the circumstances of the crime.

More Questions About Sex Offenders and Sex Offenses? Ask an Attorney

Sex offenses range from indecent exposure to possession of child pornography to sexual assault and rape. While our common-sense understanding of these crimes tells us that they are not all equal, many of the crimes carry "registration" requirements which can effectively hamper a person's ability to live a normal life.

If you or someone you know is being investigated for a sex crime or has already been charged, it is best to immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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