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March 8, 2017

"Public Crime Registries Rarely Work, So Why Do They Continue to Grow?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary authored by Emmanuel Felton. Here are excerpts: 

[T]he idea of making information about offenders public has proven immensely popular. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that virtually all Americans  —  94 percent  — supported public sex offender registries and about two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t even somewhat concerned about how the public nature of registries affected those forced to sign up. With the Internet providing states with a cheap and easy way to get information into the hands of citizens, lawmakers soon found registries to be a relatively inexpensive solution to complex problems, says Amanda Agan, a Rutgers University professor who studies the economics of crime.

“These policies were well intentioned and they sounded like they might work. And on top of that they are relatively low cost,” Agan says. “But now we have all of this evidence that they just don’t work, but the problem is it’s very difficult to start pulling back. There would be a public outcry.”

The Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry started off as a fix for a legislature-made problem. In the mid-1990s, at the height of the tough-on-crime movement, Illinois added a host of offenses against children to their sex offender rolls, including first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child abduction, regardless of whether the crime involved a sex offense. Responding to concerns that it was unfair to include those offenders  —  take, for example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who stabbed her older brother with a kitchen knife after a fight over a shower cap  —  on the sex crime list, the state created this new violent offender registry. That created a registry for people convicted of a set of violent crimes against children. That list was later expanded to include murderers like Armstrong, whose crimes didn’t involve children, when, in 2011, state lawmakers passed Andrea’s Law, named for a college student strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend.

While Illinois lawmakers may be the most zealous employers of public registries  —  the state also maintains an online list of those convicted of making methamphetamine  —  the state is far from alone. Oklahoma also has a violent crime registry similar to Illinois’ and Kansas has a meth registry like Illinois’. Indiana, Kansas, and Montana still have combined sex and violent offender registries. Florida, on the other hand, makes folks convicted of three violent felonies sign up for a public registry. Tennessee also had a meth registry, before expanding it into a much more encompassing drug offender registry. And among the more original uses, Tennessee also has an animal abuser registry and Utah recently launched a registry for people convicted of certain white-collar crimes.

While there isn’t much research about the effectiveness of newer crime registries like those for murderers, there has been a lot of research into sex offender registries. Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University, says that research has been conclusive: those registries simply haven’t reduced sex crimes. She says that’s because they obscure the real threat to children, being abused by someone close to them, and greatly overemphasize the incredibly rare occurrences of children being abducted by people they don’t know.

“Stranger abductions of children happen just 115 times a year in this country,” says Levenson, who studies the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce sexual violence. “While there’s no question that that’s 115 too many, there are 80 million children in this country. The problem with sex offender registries is they obscure the real threat — over 90 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by people they know.”

St. Louis University Law School professor Molly Wilson says the concept of cognitive availability helps explain why threats like stranger danger remain so prominent in the making of our criminal codes. Cognitive availability describes a logical fallacy where decision-makers tend to overemphasize the importance of examples that quickly come to mind. That leads people to overestimate threats with really salacious details, Wilson says. “When you ask someone to estimate how serious a threat is, they search their minds,” says Wilson, who also holds a doctorate degree in psychology. “What they come to first is what is cognitively available, and that’s these really vivid examples that from an empirical standpoint are pretty rare. The human mind is designed to think of the sensory cases that imprint details — an image of the bicycle that a girl was riding sticking out of the bushes.”

Cognitive availability is a particularly compelling explanation for why many registries quickly expanded to murderers despite the fact that just 1 percent of murderers kill again. Similarly, just 6 percent of people convicted of rape or sexual assault repeated in the five-year follow-up period covered by a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That’s compared to a 13 percent same-crime recidivism rate for robbers and a 34 percent rate for those convicted of assault. Despite repeated attempts by researchers to link lower sex offender recidivism rates with the passage of registration laws, there’s been no conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis. In fact, there is some evidence that these laws actually increase recidivism as they effectively act as anti-re-entry programs.

Arthur Lurigio, a clinical psychologist and a professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says the rise of registries underscores a central failure of America’s criminal justice system: “ We are failing to recognize the possibility of human change.”...

Wayne Logan — whose 2009 book, Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America, charts the rise of crime registries over 75 years — says there has been some relaxing of registration rules for sex offenders in recent years. He points to California’s public registry, which no longer includes those caught soliciting prostitutes and so-called Romeo and Juliet offenses—those are the cases where there’s consensual sex between teenagers, one of whom is a minor. “You see some unwinding,” says Logan, a professor of law at Florida State University. “But the overall trend is expansion. It’s a very flexible technology, it can work for arsonists or meth makers or white-collar criminals. It’s social control on the cheap.”

March 8, 2017 at 11:50 AM | Permalink

Comments

Sex offender registries "work" because they provide people with a clear demarcation point for allowing them to legitimately "hate" individuals without "fear" that they would be "normal" again. The anti-normalization effort is just as large part, if not actually a BIGGER part, of the entire scheme of apartheid, and in fact is in line with how the mob rule effect works. Until someone more hated than sex offenders comes about (unlikely; they are hated even more than "radical Islamic terrorists"), it is very likely that the registries will stay and only grow, no matter the legal outcomes.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Mar 8, 2017 12:37:12 PM

Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people. Or politicians' willingness to pander to it. It seems that legislative bodies have all lost the will to do the right thing (or refrain from doing the wrong thing) unless it will positively affect their poll numbers.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 8, 2017 5:05:12 PM

Now, Doug, stand up and tell the class why offender registries are growing in number and spreading. You have one guess only. That phenomenon is best explained by The _______ _________ Theory.

Very good. Sit down, please.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 8, 2017 8:25:28 PM

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