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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.