Do Sex Offender Registries Make Us Less Safe? Laws Purporting to Protect the Public May Be Increasing Sex Offender Recidivism Rates

Article excerpt

During the 1990s and 2000s, sex offenders became subject to some of the most sweeping and novel crime legislation in the United States. Two early innovations inaugurating this trend were sex offender registration laws, which require that convicted sex offenders, once released, regularly provide valid contact information and other identifying data to law enforcement authorities, and sex offender notification laws, which complement registration laws by making an offender's registration and criminal history information available to the public, most notably through the now-familiar searchable online databases known as "web registries." Laws of both types, referred to generally as "SORN laws" and mandated by the federal government in some form since the mid-1990s, now exist in every state.

State legislatures enacted SORN laws with the explicit and exclusive aim of reducing sex offender recidivism. Registration laws were designed solely to enable more effective law enforcement supervision (and apprehension, if necessary) of previously convicted sex offenders, who were assumed to be at serious risk for reoffending. Similarly, notification laws were passed with the singular goal of helping potential victims protect themselves from known and nearby sex offenders by facilitating the public monitoring and physical avoidance of these individuals. Proponents of registration and notification laws continue to defend them entirely on these grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded, at least with respect to early versions of SORN laws, that state legislatures intended merely to "regulate" released offenders who may prove to be dangerous, not to punish them for previously committed crimes.

The general idea that we ought to "regulate" released offenders--of any type--to reduce the likelihood of their returning to crime is an attractive one, at least in theory. Criminal recidivism generates significant social harm. As many as two-thirds of all released felony inmates are readmitted to prison within a few years, and the public generally views individuals convicted of sex offenses as among those most likely to reoffend upon release. It is not surprising, therefore, that the public's impression of sex offender dangerousness, when catalyzed by a few gruesome and headline-grabbing crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, produced the first SORN laws, which in turn led to the federal acts that extended SORN laws nationwide.

Nevertheless, despite their now-widespread use, SORN laws became the norm without any systematic study of their consequences. Admittedly, the logic underlying these laws seems at first difficult to gainsay: if a known sex offender poses even a small risk to a potential new victim, how can it hurt if the police are keeping better tabs on that offender or if the offender's neighbors are made aware that he is a threat so they can take measures to reduce their own risk of victimization? But this question and its implied answer presume that SORN laws have no influence on whether released sex offenders opt to pursue new victims in the first place. If the enforcement of notification laws imposes significant financial, social, and psychological costs on released sex offenders, as an avalanche of evidence suggests it does, then notification may in fact be criminogenic. The result may well be many more attempted attacks by convicted sex offenders and therefore higher recidivism rates on the whole, even if every individual attack attempted becomes somewhat less likely to succeed.

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Furthermore, the logic offered by most SORN advocates ignores the potentially significant, yet unintended, consequences that these laws may have on many other distinct facets of sex offender behavior. For one example, SORN laws may function as a deterrent to potential sex offenders, i.e., those with "clean" records who want to avoid the prospect of being publicly branded a sex offender if they are caught and convicted of committing a sex crime. …