Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay (Ep. 208)

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(Photo: Keith Allison)

(Photo: Keith Allison)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The gist of this episode: Sure, sex crimes are horrific, and the perpetrators deserve to be punished harshly. But society keeps exacting costs — out-of-pocket and otherwise — long after the prison sentence has been served.

This episode was inspired (as many of our best episodes are) by an e-mail from a podcast listener. His name is Jake Swartz:

Hey Guys,

So I just finished my M.A. in forensic psychology at John Jay and started an internship in a new city … I spend most of my days hanging out with lovely people like rapists and pedophiles. At my internship, I primarily do therapy (both group and individual) with convicted sex offenders and it made me realize being a sex offender is a terrible idea (apart from the obvious reasons). It’s economically disastrous! I think it would be interesting to cover the economics of being a sex offender.

I assumed that by “economically disastrous,” Jake was mostly talking about sex-offender registries, which constrain a sex offender’s options after getting out of prison (including where he/she can live, work, etc.). But when we followed up with Jake, we learned he was referring to a whole other set of costs paid by convicted sex offenders. And we thought that as disturbing as this topic may be to some people, it might indeed be interesting to explore the economics of being a sex offender — and that it might tell us something more generally about how American society thinks about crime and punishment.

In the episode, a number of experts walk us through the itemized costs that a sex offender pays  — and whether some of these items (polygraph tests or a personal “tracker,” for instance) are worthwhile. We focus on once state, Colorado (where Swartz works), since policies differ by state. Among the contributors:

+ Rick May, a psychologist and the director of Treatment and Evaluation Services in Aurora, Colo. (the agency where Jake Swartz is an intern).

+ Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation for the Colorado Office of the State Public Defender.

+ Leora Joseph, chief deputy district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District; Joseph runs the special victims and domestic-violence units.

+ Elizabeth Letourneau, associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse; and president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

We also take a look at some empirical research on the topic, including a paper by Amanda Agan, an economics post-doc at Princeton. Her paper is called “Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?” As you can glean from the title alone, Agan found that registries don’t prove to be much of a deterrent against further sex crimes. Here is the abstract (the bolding is mine):

I use three separate data sets and designs to determine whether sex offender registries are effective. First, I use state-level panel data to determine whether sex offender registries and public access to them decrease the rate of rape and other sexual abuse. Second, I use a data set that contains information on the subsequent arrests of sex offenders released from prison in 1994 in 15 states to determine whether registries reduce the recidivism rate of offenders required to register compared with the recidivism of those who are not. Finally, I combine data on locations of crimes in Washington, D.C., with data on locations of registered sex offenders to determine whether knowing the locations of sex offenders in a region helps predict the locations of sexual abuse. The results from all three data sets do not support the hypothesis that sex offender registries are effective tools for increasing public safety.

We also discuss a paper by the economists Leigh Linden and Jonah Rockoff called “Estimates of the Impact of Crime Risk on Property Values from Megan’s Laws,” which found that when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, “the values of homes within 0.1 miles of an offender fall by roughly 4 percent.”

You’ll also hear from Rebecca Loya, a researcher at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Her paper is called “Rape as an Economic Crime: The Impact of Sexual Violence on Survivors’ Employment and Economic Wellbeing.” Loya cites an earlier paper on this topic — “Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look,” by Ted R. Miller, Mark A. Cohen, and Brian Wiersema — and notes that out-of-pocket (and other) costs borne by convicted sex offenders do have something to say about our collective views on justice:

LOYA: So if we believe that doing one’s time in prison is enough of a punishment, then we have to ask questions about whether people should continue to pay financially in other ways after they get out. And perhaps as a society we don’t believe that and we believe people should continue to pay and perhaps our law reflects that.


My brother was rehabbed via the forced group therapy and counseling.
Sex offenders hardly repeat.


Sex Offenders law can be very expensive.

Thomas Dalton

I was disappointed by a glaring omission in this otherwise very interesting and informative podcast. You spoke a lot about the high cost to offenders of their treatment. That is not a question of crime and punishment, but healthcare. The problem is with the US healthcare system - civilised countries do not make sick people pay for their own treatment. They certainly do not make sick people pay for mandatory treatment that is for the public good - treatment of paraphilias is very similar to treatment of infectious diseases which need to be treated to protect others and I believe are treated free of charge even in the US.


Why is it a matter of health care? Putting aside the question of who should pay for health care, where exactly is the health issue in supposed 'treatment'? As others have pointed out, many sex offenders are just normal teenagers or young adults engaging in consensual sex that happens to offend parents. These are NOT sick people, they are victims of a sick society.

For the true sex criminals - rapists and pedophiles - where's the evidence that any treatment actually works? The problem, as far as society goes, is not that these people want particular things, it's that they will take them from unconsenting others. It's no different than for instance someone who wants money choosing to rob a convenience store rather than work.


Most of the people on the sex offender list in my state were busted for trying to have sex with an under age prostitute. Many of these were probably sting operations. The "sex offender" was arrested, booked, released and came to a plea agreement. They never went to jail. But there are hundreds of these people on my state's website. Which is why the sex offender list is useless because so many (mostly) harmless people are on it - from streakers to people exchanging nude pictures of themselves (if their were underage when they took their own picture) to full blow rapists. The effort to figure out who is harmless and who isn't is left up to me to click through hundreds of profiles.

In the future we will all be on the sex offender list when we become teenagers.


You just acknowledged that their profile tells you what their crime was. Your objection is that you have to actually click into the profile to find out what they did. I'm sorry, but this objection is a weak one.

I've gone through the sex offender registry in the states I've lived in and no, soliciting underage prostitutes was not the predominant crime. Also, as if soliciting an underage prostitute is okay. A lot of these girls are trafficked and the Johns know this. They'll often tell the Johns their situation. What the Johns are attempting to do is rape and boo hoo if they end up on the sex offender registry for it.

Lindy Lampe

Are we really rehabilitating the criminal, or preventing recidivism? Maybe the laws simply give voice to our anger, frustration and helplessness over crimes against the innocent. Can sexual tendencies be changed? Will controlling early access to pornography and education have an effect if offenders are identified early? If it is true that one is born with a predisposed sexual orientation, are our laws only beneficial as a cathartic response against such behaviors? Has the incidence of sexual abuse increased? What has changed in our society that would perpetuate antisocial behavior?


You're asking some very good questions Lindy. I'm curious what kind of work you do. It's such a rare treat to find people who ask good, thoughtful questions.

I'm sorry to say I don't have any good answers for you. :-)


I just listened to your podcast on sex offenders and economics. I found the information well researched, thought provoking and interesting. I live in the state of Texas and I provide group sex offender therapy part-time for a small county parole office. I have been in sex offender treatment and evaluation since 2006. It is a costly business in the state of Texas since Texas has some of the most stringent sex offender laws in the United States. Texas is one of those states that grandfathers all sex offenders in to the new sex offender laws. So I have clients that committed offenses in 1975, but are under the sex offender laws of 2009 because they committed another non-sexual offense after completing their sentence on the sex offense. Often times in my groups over the years I have heard clients say that no one wants to listen to them and no one understands what they are going through. I have heard many of them say they wish they would have killed someone so that they could live a "normal life" and not have to be under the umbrella of sex offender laws. The financial and emotional costs for all involved, survivors, families (on both sides) and the perpetrators, is daunting. Thank you for your podcast.



As someone who knows a lot of people on the registry (my husband and I fascilitate a support group for registrants and their families), and as the wife of a registrant (my husband had consensual sex with a 15 year old when he was 19), what about those who don't have victims? Or those whose "victims" don't see themselves as victims? The majority of the people I know fall into these categories. My husband and I are paying dearly for something he did 14 years ago! He is listed on the registry as "high risk" and notifications (that WE were billed for) were mailed out to our entire neighborhood. How does any of this "Fit the crime"? Not to mention, of ALL of our friends on the registry, HE is the only one listed as "high risk".

The registry and all of our sex offender laws are a joke. They do nothing to deter crime (most of the people I know had NO clue what kind of trouble they could get into, including my husband), and the recidivism rates are astronomically low. We aren't keeping anybody safer. some of the sweetest people I know are on the registry in Texas and they shouldn't be there. How about we make laws that actually make sense? We spend an astronomical amount of money on these registries. Texas opted out of the Adam Walsh Act because it can't afford the registry is has, much less spend the millions it would cost to become AWA compliant (Texas, like many other states, chose to lose grants instead of enacting the AWA because of the cost alone!).

How about we stop spending money on a registry that doesn't work, and we put that money to child abuse prevention and education, and victim's services. THATS where we can really make a positive difference!


Julien Couvreur

I just want to point out two alternating conceptions of justice which pop up in the podcast but seem incompatible:
-punishment to the harm
-punishment as deterrent

They are incompatible because the deterrence rationale can justify ratcheting the punishment much higher (until the crime is virtually reduced to zero, which is impossible).

Along those lines, it is worth considering another conception of punishment: punishment as compensation to victims. This is encapsulated in "two teeth for one teeth" (by committed a crime you have waived a proportional right to the victim to your person and property).

It's not obvious why prison is the best punishment and that the punishment should be because of harm to "society" (as opposed to harm to the victim).
So, why do victims and innocent bystanders have to pay for incarceration? Why can't criminals negotiate terms with their victims (or their delegate), such as compensating the victim in some form?

Regarding the problem that criminals impose risks on society, it seems fair for people to refuse to associate with criminals (I don't want to hire you, or I don't want to lease to you). But why aren't we also seeing an insurance solution (the insurance company being motivated to prevent recidivism so they can reduce payouts, and also subjected to competitive pressure to reduce premiums and increase quality)?


Julien Couvreur

[Sorry I missed a key word above]
-punishment *proportional* to the harm
-punishment as deterrent


Dear freakonomics,

I am a big fan since day 1 of you guys. But your are missing one important point here:
The cost of sex offenders for the society is huge, from a victim perspective because lives of people who have been abused will never be the same with a correlation to addiction according to Gabor Maté

What is the cost for society of a broken life?


I'm curious about rent seeking. In my state, more and more types of people are considered sex offenders. These are people who aren't pedophiles or rapists. Are these people also being forced into expensive therapy? And for who's benefit?


Evan, absolutely they are. I know several people on the registry or non-violent, or victimless crimes. (As I mentioned in my comment above my husband is on the registry for teenage sex). He was in "sex offender treatment" for 8-9 years, is still finishing probation (4 months left!) and we had to fork out $200 for a polygraph just last week. His "crime" was almost 14 years ago. I guarantee you, if they are on the registry, and they are on probation or parole, they are absolutely having to do the same things as the violent offenders.


I'd like to hear what your hubby's victim has to say.

Also, is your hubby an impulsive fool in a lot of ways? Why on earth would he do something to get himself added to the sex offender registry?

Ed Waltemyer

Enjoyed the first two books published. Have not enjoyed this book at all.
Ego and self-importance have become paramount to the writers.


Those poor sex offenders!!! Maybe the real problem is that they shouldn't be let out of prison in the first place.