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Many of us have done it—we’ve found an online sexual offender registry and typed in our address just to see. “Oh look,” we say with a mix of surprise and terror, “there are four registered sex offenders living nearby.”
The question of whether or not this knowledge actually keeps us safer or prevents future sexual assault is questionable. While the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that two-thirds of felony offenders were rearrested for a new crime within three years from their release from prison, so far, research has not supported the registering offenders prevents these arrests. A study out of South Carolina showed, over a period of eight years, registered sex offenders were no less likely to recidivate than non-registered sex offenders. And statistics show we are far more likely to be assaulted by someone we know rather than a complete stranger.
So while some lawmakers push for a similar registry to be created for domestic violence offenders, advocates are by and large saying, “Bad plan.”
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Texas and New York Push For Registries
In 2013, the Texas House of Representatives was the first in the country to pass a bill to create a domestic violence offender registry. (As of today, the registry has not yet been created.)
State Rep Trey Martinez Fischer jointly authored the bill with Rep. Jason Villalba. Fisher says the registry would bring something to the state he thinks is lacking: “an additional layer of vigilance.”
Says Fisher, “I’d like to believe that even today there’s a community caretaking standard that we look out for each other and we look out for our neighbors.” A registry would “add another opportunity for those to be aware of who lives among them.”
Once created, only abusers convicted three times or more of domestic violence will be required to register. (One survey showed that fewer than 5 percent of domestic violence cases ever resulted in a conviction.) The registry will be available free online and will include the names, birth dates and recent photographs of the offenders.
Lawmakers in New York have been pushing for something similar for the past eight years with proposed legislation called Brittney’s Law. The law continues to stall in the State Assembly as advocates for domestic violence survivors speak out against it.
“There’s so many kinds of issues that come up with this,” says Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Their group has been opposing a domestic violence registry since the beginning, almost 11 years ago.
On the surface, Neal sees how a registry may seem like a helpful stopgap, keeping a thumb on the forehead of repeat offenders. But that presumes that abusers are two things: a.) physically violent and thus, able to be convicted and b.) no longer in control of a survivor.
Abusers Know How to Avoid Arrest
“So many individuals who have perpetrated domestic violence have flown under the radar,” says Neal. “Maybe, at best, 10 percent of offenders come to attention of criminal justice system, even fewer are felonies,” says Neal.
It’s much more common, she says, for these abusers to find themselves in a diversion program, some form of batterer intervention. But more often than not, abusers are never convicted of a violent felony, instead, they are never reported at all. Domestic violence is a widely underreported crime with many survivors living in fear of contacting the police, held hostage by threats from abusers that if they do, additional violence will come to them.
Many other abusers—if not all, argue some advocates—use tactics like psychological abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse and gaslighting in lieu of addition to physical violence, tactics that pit their word against a survivor’s, often allowing cunning abusers to escape any form of punishment by law enforcement. (Read about all of abusers’ forms for power and control in our Identifying Abuse section.)
Survivors Can Suffer
And then there’s this to consider: survivors may find themselves in a situation where they defend themselves against an abuser using force. In some cases, when police show up, both the survivor and abuser are arrested for battery. Just imagine the consequences, muses Neal, of survivors winding up on a domestic violence offender registry.
She also points out that survivors may return to an abuser, even after the abuser’s arrest.
“For a whole range of reasons, survivors may choose to stay in relationship with the abuser. If that’s the best decision they can make—they may have children with them, economic issues may be very intertwined, or they don’t want to leave their home or community—we don’t want to make things more difficult for them,” says Neal. Having a partner on a registry could result in additional consequences for the survivor, ranging from lack of employment to further violence in retaliation, even victim-blaming by friends and family.
Fischer says it’s not lost on him that there could be false positives and other unintended consequences, but he still thinks a registry is the way to proceed.
“I also know that if we do nothing we also expose and put at greater risk families that cannot speak out and do not feel safe in their own homes, and the crime of domestic violence goes unreported. If we can empower and provide an additional layer of support … perhaps we can help break part of that cycle,” says Fischer.
Brittney’s Grandmother Sees It Differently
Dale Driscoll’s daughter, Helen Buchel, and Buchel’s 12-year-old daughter Brittney Passalacqua were stabbed to death in 2009 by Buchel’s abusive boyfriend, John Brown. Driscoll says her daughter met Brown only five months earlier. Brown had been upfront with Buchel about his prior assault conviction, telling Buchel that he had gotten into a barroom brawl over a girl. It wasn’t the real story.
“What she didn’t know was he had thrown his infant daughter into a wall causing brain damage,” says Driscoll.
Brown murdered Driscoll’s daughter and granddaughter after Buchel told Brown she was leaving him, notoriously the most lethal time for a survivor. Buchel’s 15-year-old son found the bodies.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, not even [Brown’s] family,” says Drisoll, who, since the murders has been working nonstop to pass Brittney’s Law and create a registry.
She wants to clear up any misconception that her registry would solely be domestic violence abusers—“it would be for all violent felons, period.” She says current Department of Corrections’ websites are antiquated and don’t give enough information, such as date of birth, a photo or what the conviction was actually for, information, she feels, that could have saved her daughter and granddaughter’s lives.
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