Our Ballooning Sex-Offender Registries

California’s not the only state having trouble with its sex-offender-registration regime. In New York, the prisons are holding people past their release dates because they can’t find anywhere to live, and nearly 95% of the homeless shelters are off-limits, too.

The problem is that we don’t pass these laws on the basis of reason and evidence but on the basis of an emotional reaction to bad facts in higher-profile cases. That’s not good policy, but that’s how we get laws that require lifetime registration for every sex offense regardless of the offense or the person’s risk of re-offending (which is the case in California). Or how we get laws that register people for things like consensual teenage sex (as in at least 29 states), peeing in public (at least twelve states), or prostitution (at least six states).

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2021, California will end lifetime registration for many offenses, as explain here. The new law tracks the three-tiered system proposed below.]

The consequences are that we spend many millions of dollars to maintain registries that don’t help us distinguish high-risk offenders from low-risk ones and that permanently deprive people of any hope, housing, employment, or positive human relationships by branding them as monsters for life.

A large, growing body of research, however, says that we’re wrong about two key assumptions: that sex offenders re-offend at a higher rate than others and that most of them are strangers lurking among us. To the contrary, they are no more likely to re-offend than others—or even less likely to do so—and they are overwhelmingly not the bogeymen in the bushes but, rather, the (unregistered) people we know.

Who says so?

Well, the U.S. Department of Justice, for starters. Here’s a 2009 DOJ-funded study, for example, that found lower rates of recidivism based on its meta-analysis of 23 prior, accredited studies. And here’s a 2003 DOJ report that tracked nearly two-thirds of all the sex offenders who were released from state prisons in 1994 and found they had a lower rearrest rate than non-sex offenders.

Or how about the California Sex Offender Management Board, which oversees the largest state registry in the country in the first state to create one (back in 1947). The Board is comprised of prosecutors, police officers, and parole agents among other experts and officials. Around this time last year, it released a white paper that proposed replacing mandatory lifetime registration in California with a three-tiered system:

  • lifetime registration for sexually-violent offenders, repeat offenders, and other high-risk offenders;
  • a twenty-year registration for those who are convicted of serious or violent offenses but are not high-risk re-offenders; and
  • a ten-year registration period for misdemeanor offenders and others convicted of non-serious or non-violent offenses.

The Board’s proposal would help focus resources on those who truly present a risk while permitting others to develop stable lifestyles and move forward with their lives. We should lend our support to legislators who sponsor a bill to enact its recommendation.

Or how about Patty Wetterling, whose eleven-year-old son, Jacob, was kidnapped in 1989. Afterward, she worked hard to move more states to create sex-offender registries, and in 1994, President Clinton signed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act into law. Today, Ms. Wetterling is the Chair of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and she has served on its Board of Directors for over twenty years. But she is also one of the sharpest critics of the spiraling, ballooning use of registries that does more harm than good.

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