Sex Offender Registries

Are they keeping our children safe?

Posted Aug 09, 2019

ArtFamily/Shutterstock
Source: ArtFamily/Shutterstock

Sex offender registries have been in the news lately as media outlets have been questioning why billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor female, was able to largely elude the penalty of being on a sex offender registry by maintaining residences in states that did not require him to register. 

This then begs the bigger question—what do these sex registries accomplish, and do they work to keep our children safe?

Why were sex offender registries created?

To answer this question, it is important to understand a bit of the history of the creation of sex offender registries. In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was sexually assaulted and then brutally killed by a twice-convicted sex offender who was recently released from prison and was, unbeknownst to her parents, living down the street from them.

As you can imagine, this horrific crime shook the community, the state, and the country, and parents everywhere were demanding action so that this type of crime would not happen again. Megan’s parents were never informed that a convicted sex offender was living 30 yards from their home, and many believed that the public needs to be informed about those who pose a risk to us. 

Several months following Megan’s tragic death, “Megan’s Law” was enacted in New Jersey, which made information about those convicted of sex crimes available to the public. Several years later, the federal government passed the Wetterling Act which required all states to notify the pubic of the addresses of convicted sexual offenders. 

Then in 2006, the Sex Offender and Notification Act (SORNA) was signed into law as part of the Adam Walsh Act. Under SORNA, all states are required to maintain an online, searchable database of convicted sex offenders that provides their picture, home address, work address, and crime. 

Once released, each convicted sex offender is placed into a tier (1-3) based upon risk, with tier 3 representing the highest risk. Sex offenders are then required to register on a regular basis anywhere between 10 years to life, based upon their tier level. 

While there are national guidelines for tier ratings, it is left to the individual states to determine the sex offender’s tier level. Further, sex crimes are defined differently in each state. 

For example, one reason that Jeffrey Epstein was not on the New Mexico sex offender registry was that his victim was said to be 17 years old, and in New Mexico, that is above the age of consent—but in New York, his victims were considered minors, and he is registered as a level 3 sex offender.

Do sex offender registries prevent sex abuse?

As with most things, the answer is complicated—but researchers overwhelmingly agree that in general, the answer is "no." While some evidence suggests that registries may act as a deterrent for new sex crimes, the overall research has demonstrated that these laws do little to nothing to reduce reoffending. 

In fact, a study using the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data examined the number of reported rapes after the institution of registration laws in 10 states and found that reported rapes decreased in three states, stayed the same in six states, and actually increased in one state, leading the researchers to conclude that overall there was no systemic influence of sex offender registries on the rate of reported rape.  

Several states have conducted studies to look at the effectiveness of their registries on sexual reoffending by those who had already been convicted of a sex crime (the intention of the registry). Overall, these data more conclusively show that registries do not impact reoffending rates.

For example, a recent study examining the effectiveness of New Jersey Megan’s Law 20 years after its institution found that the law had little impact on reoffense rates. Another study out of South Carolina found no significant decrease in reoffending after the institution of sex offender registration and notification in the state. 

More worrisome was the fact that more individuals charged with sex crimes were able to plead guilty to non-sex-related crimes so that they would not have to be on the registry. Several other states found no impact of sex offender registries on reoffending rates, including New York State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Only two studies—one in Washington state and one from Minnesota—found decreases in sexual reoffending following the introduction of the registry. 

Why don’t they work?

Researchers have put forth various theories as to why sex offender registries are largely ineffective at preventing recidivism. 

1. Most sex crimes are committed by someone known to the victim, and thus, once identified, they no longer have access to potential victims. In fact, 93 percent of all sex crimes against children are committed by someone known to the victim, such as a family member, friend, or community member.

2. Almost all (95 percent) of sex crimes are committed by someone who would not be on the sex offender registry—which means that only 5 percent of reoffending could be prevented by these registries

3. Sex offenders have relatively low reoffending rates—a large scale study of over 29,000 convicted sex offenders found that 13.7 percent reoffended sexually

4. There is evidence that sex offender registries may actually increase the risk of reoffending by destabilizing the offender as they try to reintegrate back into the community.

5. Sex offender registries are fraught with error.  Studies have found that anywhere between 10-75 percent of all entries in the registries have some sort of factual error.

What should we do instead?

Sex offender registries are costly, and it is estimated that once implemented, registries cost states more than 10 million dollars per year to maintain. Given that there is little evidence to show that they decrease reoffending, this money can be better spent on prevention efforts.

1. Some of this money could be used to fund after-school and summer programs for children whose parents could not otherwise afford it. One recent study found that most individuals who were abused as children were abused in the after-school hours or during the summer months when there was limited parental supervision. 

2. Increase sexual violence prevention education in schools. A recent study found that teaching children about sexual abuse at an early age increased reporting—which in turn can increase detection and prevent future reoffending.

3. Teach and encourage bystander intervention programs. There is some evidence that by teaching individuals to spot potential signs of abuse and how to intervene can prevent abuse from happening in the first place.

4. Teach Parents the facts about sexual abuse. Teach adults about sexual grooming and how potential predators can be detected.

5. Make sure that all child-serving organizations have policies on sexual abuse prevention, including no adults alone with children and open-door policies.

6. Work to change the culture. The #MeToo movement started a national conversation. We need to continue these types of conversations so that we are no longer accepting norms that sustain a culture of abuse so that we can create a world without sexual violence for our children.

References

For more information, see: Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.  

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