Sex Offenders and Sex Offenses: Overview

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

Society and policy makers have long struggled with finding effective ways to protect the public from sex offenders. A sex offender is a person who's 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.

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 relatives: incest
  • Crimes against children: pornography, exploitation, molestation, abduction
  • Crimes against nature: indecent exposure, sodomy, bestiality
  • Crimes against sex for sale: prostitution

Most states, such as New York, have a long list of items that are considered sex offenses. Some of the included items are intuitive and others have been included to address particular problems. For instance, Alabama has targeted school employees having sex with students as a specific sex crime. Several states include sodomy as a sex offense.

Sex Offenses Involving Computers

More recently, states have begun to define certain behaviors in conjunction with the internet or the electronic transfer of data. Many states, including California, make it a crime to distribute images of a child engaged in sexual conduct via a computer.

Sex Offenses Involving Registered Sex Offenders

In addition to explicit acts, states now make the failure to register as a sex offender or violations of the sex register statutes as sex offenses.

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 a federal prison. Other crimes involve offenders who cross state or international borders to commit, or in the commission, of a sexual offense.

For example, 18 U.S.C. section 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, production of prohibited pornography and interstate travel for the purposes of prohibited sexual activity. Some of these statutes include:

  • Selling or buying of children (Section 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 (Section 2252)
  • Certain activities relating to material constituting or containing child pornography (Section 2252A)
  • Transporting an individual in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent that the individual engage in prostitution or other illegal sexual activity (Section 2421)
  • Interstate or foreign travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a juvenile (Section 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." (Section 2425)

Sex Offense Penalties and Sentencing

As with any criminal offense, the nature, circumstances, and the parties involved control 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 a class 4 felony in Colorado and punished by a 2 to 6 year prison sentence, but the same offense in Montana will be punished by a 100 year prison term.

Any sexual offense involving children or violence will have a harsh sentence. For instance, violations of the federal statutes involving 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.

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 sex offense. The statutes establishing the registries also have compliance requirements about not living too close to schools and notifying officials when they move. Again, failure to abide by the registry requirements is a sex offense.

More Questions About Sex Offender 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're not all equal, many of the crimes carry "registration" requirements which can effectively destroy a person's ability to live a normal life. If you're being investigated for a sex crime, or you've already been charged, it's best to immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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