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March 6, 2008

Are sex offender registries effective?

A new paper available here via SSRN asks "Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?".  The piece is authored by J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff, and here is their abstract:

In recent decades, sex offenders have been the targets of some of the most far-reaching and novel crime legislation in the U.S. Two key innovations have been registration and notification laws which, respectively, require that convicted sex offenders provide valid contact information to law enforcement authorities, and that information on sex offenders be made public.  Using detailed information on the timing and scope of changes in state law, we study how registration and notification affect the frequency of sex offenses and the incidence of offenses across victims, and check for any change in police response to reported crimes.

We find evidence that registration reduces the frequency of sex offenses by providing law enforcement with information on local sex offenders. As we predict from a simple model of criminal behavior, this decrease in crime is concentrated among local victims (e.g., friends, acquaintances, neighbors), while there is little evidence of a decrease in crimes against strangers. We also find evidence that community notification deters crime, but in a way unanticipated by legislators. Our results correspond with a model in which community notification deters first-time sex offenses, but increases recidivism by registered offenders due to a change in the relative utility of legal and illegal behavior. This finding is consistent with work by criminologists suggesting that notification may increase recidivism by imposing social and financial costs on registered sex offenders and making non-criminal activity relatively less attractive. We regard this latter finding as potentially important, given that the purpose of community notification is to reduce recidivism.

March 6, 2008 at 09:26 PM | Permalink


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» New Data On Effectiveness Of Megan's Law Sex Offender Community Notification from The Faculty Lounge
Sex offender community notification laws - sometimes known as Megan's Laws - have been a popular way for legislators to establish their anti-crime bona fides. We've known that these laws have a disparate impact on people of color. To date, [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 7, 2008 11:19:16 AM

» Interesting New Article on Registration and Notification Laws from Sex Crimes
J.J. Prescott, of Michigan, and Jonah Rockoff, of Columbia Business, have posted a very interesting empirical study concerning the efficacy of sex offender registration and notification laws on SSRN. Here is the abstract:In recent decades, sex offender... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 7, 2008 9:21:40 PM


If I'm reading all the Greek correctly, the notification laws deter because the dissenters in Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84, were correct. Notification is punitive. Notifications may deter first time offenders because notification itself is so punitive, but at the same time notification is so punitive that it "may increase recidivism by imposing social and financial costs on registered sex offenders and making non-criminal activity relatively less attractive."

Maybe it is accidentally rational. What a world.

It is easy to wonder though if the study took the already falling sex crime rate into consideration and controlled for that falling rate. Maybe the Greek sections explained that.

Posted by: | Mar 6, 2008 11:44:46 PM

The authors use reported offenses as their base but deal poorly with the likelihood that the increased attention to these crimes will lead many victims not to report. Their section on this possibility is very cursory and ignores the simple measure of looking at reports by victim before and after institution of the laws. Their results on their face would be exactly what we would predict if the often feared failure to report "Dad," "Unc," or Coach or Reverend rose as a result of those individuals' likely subsequent vilification in the community. Interesting paper but more work is needed before accepting its results.

Posted by: Michael Connelly | Mar 7, 2008 10:30:35 AM

Michael, aren't unreported offenses down by about 50%? That is to ask if the public debate itself, excluding the punitive sanctions as a factor, is enough to drive down the rate. And if so, by how much?

Posted by: George | Mar 7, 2008 1:00:58 PM

It's funny to me when proponents of registration say that sex crimes are under reported and now say that because unreported sex offenses have dropped so much that it is because of registration requirements. What happened to 'sex crimes are not being reported?'

Posted by: JWK | Mar 7, 2008 7:12:03 PM

Hmmmm...no impact on "stranger danger." Villification increases recidivism. First time offenses down because people aren't reporting them...although the proponents of draconian laws were claiming that there were millions of unreported victims throughout the 80s and 90s, a sensationalist tactic that when combined with "novel" psychotherapy destroyed many innocent lives.

A failed experiment. It should be tossed into the trash bin of history, along with our drug "war."

Posted by: Alec | Mar 8, 2008 2:01:56 PM

Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?
The sex offender laws have certainly created more so called criminal behavior. Childs play and teenage love, is not what it used to be. Registries are loaded with Americans youths check out:

As previously shown, the language used to label children who behave in a sexual manner typically confuses indecent or socially inappropriate behavior with coercion and violence.4 It is one thing to prohibit such behavior and discipline children for it. It is quite another to describe almost any sexual activity among children, even when it is mutually desired, as “molestation,” “abuse,” “assault,” and “rape.” Such language is a slap in the face to those children who have been truly victimized by real abuse. It also misleads the public into thinking that all children who act sexually are dangerous and merit criminal charges.

Posted by: America land of the free? | Mar 9, 2008 1:06:50 PM

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