When her 11-year-old son Jacob was kidnapped by a stranger in a mask holding a gun, Patty Wetterling wanted to know how this could have happened. What did the cops need to catch predators that they didn't already have?
That was 1989, and her questions led to the creation of Minnesota's first sex offender registry in 1991. Back then, it was a private list designed to quickly show law enforcement if convicted sex and kidnapping offenders lived in an area by requiring them to register their addresses.
Thirty years later, Minnesota's list has swelled to more than 18,000 active registrants, including juveniles, some not much older than Jacob was when he was kidnapped. Meanwhile, the name of Danny Heinrich, the man Wetterling learned 27 years later kidnapped and killed her son, would have never landed on that list because he hadn't been charged or convicted of a sex crime before Jacob.
Now, Wetterling and others are pushing state lawmakers to take a closer look at the Predatory Offender Registry she helped establish and remove juveniles, arguing the registry was expanded over the years when legislative panic over sexual predators was high but scientific research on reoffending was low. The list has grown and become so punitive that experts argue in some cases it could be counteracting the original goal — to keep children safe.
"I hate sex crimes. I am not lenient on people who cause harm to children," said Wetterling. "But I'm suggesting that children who harm children are different from a 45-year-old man hurting children."
At the time of its creation, the world was horrified by Jacob's kidnapping in the quiet central Minnesota city of St. Joseph. In 1994, the federal government also created a sex offender registry, partly in response to the Wetterling case, and registries started popping up in more states across the nation.
The registry was based on the widespread assumption at the time that people who commit sex crimes are much more likely than not to do it again, and over the years the Legislature vastly expanded its footprint.
In 2000, in response to Katie Poirier's abduction and murder by a registered sex offender, legislators increased penalties for offenders who failed to register and added an additional 10 years to their time on the list if they committed any other crime while registered. Lawmakers required public disclosure if an offender failed to report information.
The Legislature changed the name from "sex offender" to the "predatory offender" registry, eventually expanding it to juveniles convicted of a sex crime and requiring registry of all sexual offenses, even things like public urination. In some cases, offenders can be placed on the registry without a conviction.
But multiple studies in the decades that have followed the creation of these registries show that offenders offend again in 10% or fewer of all cases — far below original assumptions. And their risk continues to decline the older they get and the longer they live offense-free in a community.
Posting the names of offenders publicly can make it harder for them to get jobs or rent apartments and re-enter society. In some cases, they can lose the motivation to not reoffend.
"They can really impair successful re-entry," said Eric Janus, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law who focuses on the effectiveness of sexual predator laws. "They kind of remove some of the incentives to avoid recidivism because they make people's lives miserable."
The ages on Minnesota's registry range from people in their teens through their 60s, according to a spokesperson from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which maintains the list.
Experts have been worried for years about the inclusion of teenagers, who have some of the lowest rates of reoffending and the greatest chance of turning their lives around. Jim Fleming, the district public defender in Ramsey County, said a man in his 30s came to him because he was put on the registry as a 13-year-old. His 10-year period on the list restarted after a disorderly conduct charge, and then again after another unrelated charge. Fleming told the man there was no way to appeal his time on the list.
"There's no way to get off the registry," said Fleming. "You can't petition or do anything. You just have to wait your turn."
Stacy Bettison, an attorney in private practice and a part-time assistant public defender in Ramsey County, said her public data request to the BCA revealed more than 12,000 people on the list have had their time expanded because of failure to register or a non sexual-related offense.
"We don't know how the registry actually works, we don't know if it's effective," said Bettison. "Certainly there's a place for the registry, no one is saying there's not. But how can it be set up so that it is actually serving the public in the most effective way?"
A proposed working group to dig into the registry is now part of sweeping legislation that would, at the same time, expand the number of names on it by cracking down on people who coerce others into unwanted sexual contact or take advantage of someone who is too intoxicated to consent.
Wetterling said she supports those changes, which were part of a yearlong working group tasked with examining gaps in the state's sexual criminal conduct statutes. But lawmakers should also be evaluating the growing list of offenders on the registry, she said, something they've never done before.
A group that examined potential outcomes of adding new sex offense charges agreed that most juveniles should be taken off the registry, and only people who are convicted of a sex offense should be on the list. The legislation is moving in the DFL-led House, and Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.
For years, Wetterling has felt increasingly uncomfortable as lawmakers expanded the role of the registries to include juveniles. She's had families reach out to her who don't want to report a sexual offense between two children in the family because they don't want the child to end up on a registry. In that scenario, no one gets the help they need, she said.
When they changed the name to the Predatory Offender Registry, Wetterling said she "hit a wall."
"So now you're going to change the name to predatory and put children on that list? I didn't understand how you could call a child predatory," she said. "We can't give up on our children."