Are Sex Offender Laws Backfiring?

Photo: pena2(A map of registered sex offenders in L.A.)

A pair of new studies raise questions as to whether sex offender registries and community notification laws actually reduce recidivism of sex offenders, or even lead to lower sex crime rates overall. Both are published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Law and Economics.

The first study by Jonah Rockoff of Columbia Business School, and J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan, parses out the effectiveness of the two basic types of sex offender laws. While they find that the registration of released sex offenders is associated with a 13% decrease in crime from the sample mean, public notification laws proved to be counterproductive, and led to slightly higher rates of sex crime because of what the authors refer to as a “relative utility effect”:

Our results suggest that community notification deters first-time sex offenders, but may increase recidivism by registered offenders by increasing the relative attractiveness of criminal behavior. This finding is consistent with work by criminologists showing that notification may contribute to recidivism by imposing social and financial costs on registered sex offenders and, as a result, making non-criminal activity relatively less attractive.
…[C]onvicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crime when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make crime more attractive.

The second study comes from Amanda Y. Agan, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, who throws water on the whole notion that sex offender registries work in the first place.

Agan compared arrest rates for sex crimes in each U.S. state before and after registry laws were implemented and found no appreciable changes in crime trends following the introduction of a registry. As for recidivism, she looked at data on over 9,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994. About half were released into states where they needed to register, while the other half did not need to register. Agan found no significant difference in the two groups’ propensity to re-offend, and that those released into states without registration laws were actually slightly less likely to re-offend. Analyzing Washington D.C. census data, Agan went block by block and found that crime rates in general, and sex crimes in particular, do not vary according to the number of sex offenders in the area.

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  1. Chibinium says:

    If registries don’t protect our kids, eliminate them. Parents opposing their closure don’t have their kids’ best interests in mind. It wouldn’t be the first time (See: Vaccines). The problem is pride. They will ask themselves “If all my hard work actually put my child in danger, then what meaning was there to my suffering?”

    Never let someone ask this of themselves, for their conclusion will be self serving. In this case, she will conclude that her suffering wasn’t meaningless, and that the scientists are simply biased.

    See this coming, and stamp it out immediately.

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    • Enter your name says:

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      • Min says:

        No, it would only be useful if it prevented said convict from COMMITTING another crime. People are allowed to date people or getting jobs once they’ve served their sentence.

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      • Joe Allen says:

        Once one’s sentence/probation is over, they should be free to be a normal citizen again (albeit one with a criminal record). If the law is not comfortable letting them go, they should make the sentences longer…but this registry thing is perverse.

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      • Enter your name says:

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      • Tux says:

        Criminal records are still public. You can check the criminal record of a potential suitor or a potential employee regardless of registration laws. The registration laws have absolutely nothing to do with ones ability to find out the background of an individual.

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  2. Sam says:

    Was there really anyone under the delusion these laws were intended to make us safer?

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      Ditto, there were people who thought these served some function? They are transparently sops to parents insecurities.

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  3. Ike says:

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      Your wife, brother, or coworker is almost certainly a greater risk to children then “Mohammed”. I would worry a lot more about that. When is “Mohammed” having unsupervised access to your children anyway?

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      • Dave says:

        To back up Joshua’s comment, the US Department of Health and Human Services has a few graphs documenting who’s most likely to be responsible for the maltreatment of children (including sexual abuse) – see here and here.

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      • Enter your name says:

        Those figures represent primarily physical abuse and neglect, not sexual abuse. The largest category is a young child taken away from a single mother because of neglect, e.g., a drug-addicted mother is failing to feed, wash, or supervise a toddler. That has nothing to do with sex offender registries.

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    • Enter your name says:

      Most children are abused by men in close relationships with their mothers. Live-in boyfriends and stepfathers are the biggest risk, followed by male relatives and (male) family friends.

      Most of the people on our sex offender registries are not people who abused children. Florida lists men who urinate in public; New York registers anyone convicted of attempting to hire a prostitute. In some states, college students who go streaking can be put in the list. I heard of one case in which they were threatening to prosecute a mother for the terrible “sex crime” of stopping on a roadside to let her very young son pee behind a bush rather than wetting his pants in the car. (I believe that outrage from the local community stopped that one.)

      These kinds of people are highly unlikely to pose any risk to any children at all, and because opportunity plays such a significant role, relatively few people in the listings actually pose a risk to children outside their own families.

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  4. Enter your name says:

    I wonder if there are differences between lifetime registries and short-term registries. Imagine the stupidest application of sex offender registries: the boy, who is barely past his 18th birthday, has 100% consensual sex with his long-time girlfriend from school, who happens to be one month under whatever age limit the state has set. (I’ve met someone whose mentally disabled [below average IQ, but not actually mentally retarded] son is serving a 10-year prison sentence for exactly this. These cases aren’t usually prosecuted, but they are occasionally.)

    If you put someone like this on a sex offender registry for life, then the cost of further offenses, in terms of the registry, is zero. (What are you going to do? Really, really put him on the registry for life this time?) But if it expired after five or ten years, then the convict might be motivated to avoid re-offending so that he could get off the list.

    Different states have different approaches to these registries. It would be interesting to know whether some approaches were more effective than others. For example, if minor, first-time offenses (e.g., drunken students going streaking) don’t result in registration, but second offenses do, might we see fewer second offenses? Might we see greater willingness to prosecute minor cases, or greater willingness to plea bargain? (I suspect that now, we have people going through expensive jury trials because a plea bargain guarantees lifetime registration, and there’s always a tiny chance that the jury will not convict you.)

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  5. AaronS says:

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      It cannot make you safer because you are not really at risk.

      Don’t tell me a registry identifying everyone who ever hit someone else in grade school won’t make me safer. It has got to make me safer.

      Don’t tell me a registry identifying everyone who doesn’t attend church won’t make me safer. It has got to make me safer.

      Don’t tell me a registry identifying everyone who owns a gun won’t make me safer. It has got to make me safer.

      Personally I would be more interesting in a gun owner registry then a pedophile registry. I suspect my children are in more danger from gun owners (through accidents) then they are pedophiles.

      How about we just skip the registries unless there is a clear benefit?

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      • MW says:

        “Don’t tell me a registry identifying everyone who doesn’t attend church won’t make me safer.”

        Someone already has this idea: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/08/florida_pastor_asks_why_atheis.html (Although I suspect they are just publicity seeking.)

        Going back to the main topic: I assert than any law named after a person (e.g. “Terence’s Law”*) is a bad law.

        * “Terence” was chosen at random, and does not specifically refer to an actual “Terence’s Law”, if there is one.

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      • Joe Allen says:

        *cough* Miranda Rights *cough*

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      • Enter your name says:

        Miranda rights are named after a court case, Miranda v. Arizona, not a law.

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      • AaronS says:

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        Your child isn’t in danger. Your child in being raised in about as safe an environment as any child in the history of the world. Get a grip.

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      • Enter your name says:

        You don’t know anything about his situation. For all you know, his child could be living with his ex-wife’s boyfriend, which is the riskiest situation possible.

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      • AaronS says:

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      • Sam says:

        Riding the bicycle itself is a far bigger danger to your little boy than that phantom pedophile that you’re worried about, Aaron.

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      • AaronS says:

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      • Sam says:

        Speaking of bizarro, that is a wild and wacky interpretation of what Joshua had to say.

        Of course you can put up warning signs for dangerous rip currents if that really is a significant danger and it is higher than normal today.

        However, this does not mean you put up “SHARK WARNING” signs every time a shark is detected within 50 miles of a beach (using the $1 billion sensor net you’ve set up to keep track of them).

        Can you really not see the difference here? In your world you either have no warnings at all or every possible hazard, no matter how remote or ineffective, must be disclosed to you.

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      • Enter your name says:

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      • Sam says:

        Obsessing over trivial risks doesn’t make you safer. In fact, it leaves you less time to think about the real risks and gives you a false sense of security. E.g. identifying all the houses with gun owners so you can keep your child away — while ignoring the greater risk of swimming pools.

        Do you really think everyone should be regularly checking registry lists to see if they happen to be one of the very small number of people who just might happen to be a teensy bit more at risk? That’s more than a bit absurd, if you ask me.

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      • Hibernia86 says:

        Joshua, given the fact that most of the terrorists today are religious extremists, I think it is time to stop blaming non-religious people for the world’s problems.

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    • SHAEQUAN.SHALLAH@YAHOO.COM says:

      THIS WHOLE SEX OFFENSE THING IS A WAY 4 POLITICIANS TO GET RE ELECTED SO THEY CAN LOOK TOUGH ON CRIME BY TARGETING THE MOST HATED CRIME SEX OFFENSES. THEY DONT GIVE A DAM ABOUT U OR UR KIDS THEY ONLY CARE ABOUT GETTING RE ELECTED SO THEY CAN CONTINUE TO GET CORPORATE KICK BACKS FROM THE BIG CORPORATIONS THEY LOOK OUT FOR WITH THE BUSINESS LAWS THEY PASS. ALL THIS REGISTRY STUFF COSTS U THE TAX PAYER LARGE AMOUNTS OF UR TAX DOLLAR TO WATCH PPL WHO R NO REAL THREAT. THEY HAVE GROUP CALLED REFORM SEX OFFENDER LAWS http://www.reformsexoffenderlaws.org/ AND THEY HAVE DONE THE STUDY OR RECIDIVISM WHICH THE MEDIA DONT TELL THE PUBLIC THAT THIS CRIME IS THE LEAST COMMITTED ND IS NOT A THREAT LIKE THE MEDIA ND POLITICIANS WANT U TO BELIEVE THAT THIS IS SOME DEF CON 1 WAR ON SEX OFFENDERS BECAUSE OUT OF THE BLUE N THE LAST 10 TO 15 YEARS RAPING & MOLESTING SOMEBODIES KID IS THE NEW THING TO DO ND THEY’RE RUNNING AROUND SNATCHING UP UR KIDS FROM PARKS ND SCHOOLS ND SO ON.HOW CAN U BELIEVE THEY GIVE A DAM ABOUT UR KIDS WHEN THEY DRIVE ALL SEX OFFENDERS 2000 FEET AWAY FROM SCHOOLS WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS THAT DNT LIVE WITHIN 2000 FEET OF A SCHOOL OR OUT SIDE OF THEIR LIMIT? I DNT C NO POLITICIAN GIVING A DAM ABOUT THE FACT THAT INSTEAD OF SEX OFFENDERS BEING EVENLY DISTRIBUTED N THE PUBLIC THEY R NOW CLUTTERED UP OUT SIDE OF THAT HOW EVER MANY FOOT RADIUS UR TWN DONT LET THEM LIVE NEAR A SCHOOL. SO DNT SAY THIS IS FOR THE KIDS CAUSE EVERY KID DNT LIVE NEAR A SCHOOL ND IF U AINT TRYING TO PROTECT THEM U AINT FOR THE KIDS. THIS OCCUPY WALL ST OR THE REVOLUTION THATS GONNA CHANGE THE WORLD 4 EVER IS GONNA COME BACK TO THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM ND POLITICIANS TOO BECAUSE THEY R NO BETTER THAN THE BANKERS ND ROTHSCHILDS WHO OWN THE FEDERAL RESERVE ND 2MORO ID THEIR TURN TO GET OCCUPIED ND IT’S STARTING N DALLAS ND THE OTHER 12 FEDERAL RESERVES WILL GET IT. LOOK AT WHAT THEY TURNED US OR SHOULD I SAY YALL THE ONES WHO BELIEVE EVERYTHING U HEAR N THE NEWS U AMERICAN CITIZENS N2? BLOOD THIRSTY WANTING PUNISHMENT SAVAGES. THERE’S NO COPASSION FOR THESE PPL YALL LABEL SEX OFFENDERS WHO’S BUSINESS U WANT TO BE ALL N ND IM SURE MANY OF U WRITING UR LIL COMMENTS DESERVE TO BE ON THAT SAME LIST. DID U KNO THE POLITICIANS OF CONGRESS EXEMPTED THEM SELVES FROM THE SAME SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAWS THAT WOULD PUT U OR I ON THE REGISTRY? THEY CAN COMMIT A SEX CRIME ND WALK SCOTT FREE ALSO THEY ONLY HAVE TO DO ONE TERM TO GET FULL RETIREMENT PENSION BUT THE SOLDIERS WHO FIGHT N IRAQ ND AFGHANISTAN THAT COME HOME DIS FIGURED WITH WAR WOUNDS CAN ONLY RETIRE WITH HALF PENSION ND THEY R HELPING THIS UP RISING FOR THAT MATTER. SO SEX OFFENDERS R THE LEAST OF THE WORRIES ND WHEN THE PUBLIC GETS WIND OF HOW ALL THESE SEX CRIMES WERE BLOWN OUT OF PROPORTION TO GET POLITICIANS RE ELECTED THOSE SAME POLITICIANS R GOING TO PRISON JUST LIKE THE BANKERS NS THE REST OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL VIOLATING BASTARDS R GOING. WE R N 4 A BIG CHANGE THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING. THE REVOLUTION HAD BEGUN WITH OCCUPY WALL ST. CONSTITUTION DAY 9/17/11 – STILL GOING SO THE SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY WILL BE ABOLISHED NEXT YEAR WITH THE FEDERAL RESERVE THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM ND SOME MORE ISH WATCH ND C. ENJOY THE SHOW THE PPL FINALLY STOOD UP AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF GOVT. ABUSE AROUND THE WORLD

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  6. SarcastiCarrie says:

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    • Sam says:

      “Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a peadophile… Some people are just nice.”

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  7. mfw13 says:

    The problem with sex-offender registries is that they do not (to the best of my knowledge) differentiate between different types of sex offenses. As another commenter noted, because so many different things can be consdered to be sex offenses in different states, many people end up on sex offender lists for actions which clearly pose no threat to other members of a community.

    Probably the only sex offenders who are truly threats to other members of a community are those who have been convicted of offenses involving non-consensual sex with total strangers.

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    • Enter your name says:

      I believe that at least most of them list the charges they were convicted of (but without useful details like “his live-in girlfriend’s teenage daughter” or “a complete stranger”). Some of them are set up so that minor offenses expire after a certain number of years and/or list the date of conviction. So although they’re all “listed”, you can see for yourself that your neighbor was only convicted of peeing in public and make your own judgment about whether that’s a risk that concerns you.

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      • Hibernia86 says:

        The sex crime registration lists I have seen only use two or three words to describe the crime which makes it very difficult to tell exactly what happened. Some of them don’t have that information at all for one reason or another. So I think there is a lot of room for improvement in the system.

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  8. Tod says:

    Sadly, politicians do not consider factual information before forwarding these laws that the facts prove either do not work or actually do more harm than good.

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