Sex Offender Registries: An Easy Sell, But Do They Work?

Sex Offender Registries: An Easy Sell, But Do They Work?

Sex offender registries are the norm in all 50 states and are an easy sell, politically. But the actual value of these laws, in terms of public safety, is increasingly being questioned. Do these laws actually provide the protection that the public presumes?

Registry laws are designed and sold to the public as a way to reduce recidivism among sex offenders. For instance, a 2011 update to the Pennsylvania registry laws included the statement that the “Legislature found that . . . sexual offenders pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offenses, and protection from this type of offender is a paramount government interest.” And in support of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which has recently been introduced for reauthorization by Senators Grassley and Schumer, Congressional sponsor Jim Sensenbrenner said, “Convicted sex offenders often evade current state registration requirements and go on to commit additional offenses.”

These statements sound true and are often unchallenged. University of Massachusetts professor Jason Rydberg, who focuses on the study of sexual offenders and policy, said, “If you ask people how often sex offenders will commit a new offense when released into the community, people tend to think it’s upwards of 75 percent.”

A close look at the actual data concerning the recidivism rates of sex offenders tells a different story, however. Despite the politically expedient and largely unsupported statements made in support of registry laws, Rydberg said that overwhelming research has shown that sex offenders, as a whole, are some of the least likely groups to commit new crimes.

Indeed, the United States Department of Justice has found that recidivism rates of sex offenders are as low as three to ten percent. And one major study, according to Rydberg, found a recidivism rate of around five percent for sex offenders.

The cost of implementation and management of these laws is conservatively estimated to cost billions of dollars. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated the cost of SORNA alone to be in excess of $1.2 billion, with a continuing cost of hundreds of millions more.

Kristen Houser, Chief Public Information Officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, raised questions concerning the significant cost of registries, given their questionable value in terms of crime prevention.

“These are substantial costs…and I’m not going to say it’s not worth it but I am going to say that investing dollars into sexual abuse prevention and support programs for victims is probably not nearly as large of a budget item for the state government,” Houser said.

In addition to the significant cost of registry laws that do little to nothing to prevent crime, these laws tend to lull the public into a false sense of security.

“The public is often misled that if they check the registry and nobody lives in their neighborhood or nobody lives near their child’s school or whatever, that they’re safe,” Houser explained. “These are not laws that are going to actually produce safety.”

The biggest problem with sex offender registry laws is that roughly 80 percent of victims of sexual violence know their attackers, according to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Adam Reed.

Perhaps the most striking indictment of public sex offender registries comes from Roger Warhol, former Kansas Corrections Secretary, who explained, “They don’t work. They don’t work, and they actually make things more dangerous rather than make them safer.”


Originally published in Criminal Legal News on January 3, 2018.