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August 13, 2017

Making a case against sex offender registries

Newsweek has posted this new opinion piece authored by Professor Trevor Hoppe under the headlined "Are Sex Offender Registries Too Strict?." As evidenced by these excerpts, it seems the author believes the answer to this question is yes:

In my work on sex offender registries, I have found that black men in the U.S. were registered at rates twice that of white men—resembling disparities found in the criminal justice system at large. However, these findings speak to the scope of the problem of American sex offender registries, as approximately 1 percent of black men in the U.S. are now registered sex offenders.  My research suggests that inequality is deeply tied to sex offender policies....

Imagine being punished for something you did three decades ago.  You served your time and thought it was in the past. Under American sex offender laws, moving on is nearly impossible: Most state policies are retroactive, meaning they apply to offenders who committed offenses before these laws were put in place.  While these laws are the subject of several ongoing court battles, most remain in effect.

Offenders are subject to extensive public notification requirements, which include state-run search engine listings that feature their address, mugshot, criminal history and demographic information. In some cases, offenders are also required to publicly post flyers with their pictures or run newspaper notices advertising their residency.  Some states, such as Louisiana, stamp “SEX OFFENDER” in large red script on driver’s licenses.

Having a mugshot disseminated across internet search engines is only the tip of the iceberg; once registered, offenders are subject to a wide array of housing and employment restrictions.  In many places in the U.S., sex offenders are effectively zoned out of cities and towns because there are no residential areas that satisfy all of the numerous regulations. For example, offenders may be prohibited from living within a certain number of feet from a playground. They are often left with no choice but to live under highways or in improvised communities, such as the one in Pahokee, Florida depicted in the New York Times 2013 short film, “Sex Offender Village.”...

Lawmakers ... argue that more invasive policies are necessary because sex offenders are highly likely to commit future crimes. In their view, informing the public of their criminal history will offer protection.  But as the U.S. federal government’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking notes, sex offender registration requirements “have been implemented in the absence of empirical evidence regarding their effectiveness.”

Now that all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have developed such registries, the evidence testing the effectiveness of sex offender registries is beginning to mount. It is mixed, at best.

One study followed sex offenders who were labeled “high-risk” for reoffending and who were released from Wisconsin prisons in the late 1990s. That study compared offenders who were subjected to limited public notification requirements with those who were subjected to extensive requirements.  The researchers found no significant difference in the average time between release and a future offense.  In other words, extensive public notification did not deter future offenses.

However, another study evaluated the likelihood of reoffending for sexual offenders labeled “high risk” released from Minnesota state correctional facilities. Here researchers found that offenders subject to community notification were somewhat less likely to commit another sexual offense.

Finally, a recent study found that sex offenders released in Florida between 1990 and 2010 had lower rates of recidivism than offenders of other types of crime -- 6.5 percent for sex offenses, as compared to 8.3 percent for nonsexual assaults and 29.8 percent for drug offenses.  Moreover, that study found that recidivism rates increased after the state legislature implemented sex offender registration requirements in 1997.

While the evidence is mixed that these policies are effective at deterring crime, the evidence of their collateral consequences is more consistent.  Several studies of registered sex offenders have revealed how registries reinforce class inequality by creating patterned experiences of unemployment, harassment and homelessness.

From a public safety perspective, scholars note that registries provide the public with a false sense of security: While the existence of sex offender registries reinforces a myth of “stranger danger,” most offenders in reality are acquaintances or family members.  Balancing the thin support of the registries’ effectiveness against the more robust evidence of their negative effects, one scholar recently concluded these policies do more harm than good.

My research suggests there is also a racialized dimension to the war on sex offenders that complicates arguments in their favor. The evidence does not strongly suggest registries are effective at deterring crime. Rather, their most lasting impact may be their exacerbation of inequalities based on race, class and gender.

August 13, 2017 at 01:19 PM | Permalink


Regulatory quackery must be criminalized. If a rule or law cannot be proven to be safe and effective, those enacting it should be arrested, tried. If convicted, they should pay for the damage up to the limit of all their assets, and serve prison time. If studies or pilot trials show effectiveness, big enough to be felt at the gut level, such as 30% change, then, the enactors should be immune. Because these rules may have a different effect when moved to a larger jurisdiction, the enactors should not be held responsible. I am using the word, enactors, instead of the word, legislators, because regulators should be held accountable.

All legislative immunities must end, and victims of regulatory carelessness should be allowed to sue them for damages. The Eleventh Amendment must be repealed. It is an abomination and a major factor in the utter failure of the lawyer profession.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 13, 2017 5:47:18 PM

Not only do registries give the law-abiding a false sense of security, but they can put police and other law enforcement officials to extra needless risk to their own safety when they try to do their main job: of protecting the public safety. One, the registry requirements could cause some former sex offenders to want to seek revenge against these laws by intentionally targeting police and others for murder. Second, these laws could cause accidental death or injury to law enforcement personnel at the hands of former sex offenders who might mistake a parole officer, etc., for either a burglar or vigilante. In such a scenario, the former sex offender might feel it is his or her duty to "stand his/her ground" and kill the particular person whom they believe is about to attack them.

So, if for anything else, if we really care about our police officers' welfare, we will eliminate these sex offender registries to, first, free the police to go after real criminals, either corporate or violent, instead of having to waste their time on somebody who has already served his or her time, and to not force police to use laws that needlessly provoke a former offender into turning violent towards police and parole officers.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Aug 13, 2017 8:36:15 PM

David Behar | Aug 13, 2017 5:47:18 PM:

I like the idea but I don't want to discourage decent, intelligent Americans from replacing our criminal legislators. We have to replace the control freaks with good Americans. So in order for that to happen, we would have to reduce the risk to them. It should not be legal or allowed to create a new law without first proving it will work. It should also be required that the includes stipulations that it is monitored after it is enacted and that the law expire automatically (i.e. sunset provision) within a short duration (for example, 1 year). Once those are the legal requirements for any new law then individual legislators should only be able to be held personally accountable for harming other people if their was some intentional negligence or bad intent.

Posted by: FRegistryTerrorists | Aug 14, 2017 12:02:20 PM

william r. delzell | Aug 13, 2017 8:36:15 PM:

When I was much younger and foolish, I supported law enforcement to a huge degree. Since the Registries were created I learned that was not smart. F the police. Do not help them. Do not speak or interact with them. Do anything legal to keep them ineffective. There are many groups that work to control the police. Join them. Work to keep money away from police. Work to keep their employees poorly compensated. The employees do want/like to operate outside of the free supply and demand market (i.e. they support organized theft from taxpayers). People should definitely be active with preventing that. They should be compensated only to the extent that the free market supports, preferably much worse.

Posted by: FRegistryTerrorists | Aug 14, 2017 12:04:22 PM

We no longer have God given common sense in the united States of America. We have Lobbyists, corrupt politicians, and foreigners telling us what to do in our country. The school system has been indoctrinating our citizens for years and the people still fail to stand up for their country. The greedy continue to provide distractions and toys to appease the hard working pay check to pay check society. Funny thing is; these indoctrinations will come back to bite those abusing the Law when they step out of line. Better think about your fellow man!

Posted by: LC in Texas | Aug 14, 2017 1:05:01 PM

LC. Softened accountability is good. No accountability is bad.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 14, 2017 4:32:32 PM

The federal registry is named after a C+ TV star's child, RIP. That tells you about all you need to know about the level of thought vs. pandering that underlies this type of legislation. I mean, really, who will think of the children?

Hopefully it stops before we get the Nancy Grace criminal justice reform act.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 14, 2017 9:25:00 PM

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