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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.


Sex offenders absolutely never reoffend. They are just guys who were down on their luck and accidentally raped someone. No biggie. Oh, and read this link about how gentle and loving sex offenders are.


Sex offenders are modern day heroes.


As far how we justify sex offenders, too often the high school kids caught skinny dipping in a lake, or someone caught peeing behind a bush can be charged with public indecency and lumped in with violent rapist and pedophiles. They too can be subject to having to register as a sex offender or go through a "program". Before we talk about if something is working, we should first fix the system. The shot gun approach is not the answer.


This is somewhat not related to the topic, but would it be interesting to do research into the economics of male porn stars getting paid for doing what they like/love? Since doing your passion is/should not be considered work, wouldn't it be idealistic to assume that every third guy would list on his resume, 'I was a porn star doing what I love', if it was a positive occupation? What other occupation's attributes are similar to those of being a male porn star?

Enter your name...

I don't believe that doing one’s time in prison is always enough of a punishment.

I want a 'registry' for drunk drivers. Upon conviction, your whole neighborhood should be told that you lost your driver's license for drunk or drugged driving, and to call the cops if we see you driving before it's restored (with the date). It doesn't need to last for a lifetime.


Having a relative severely injured by a drunk driver, I do not find your sarcasm in any way funny. This particular driver was a repeat offender.
I would be quite happy that his whole world was destroyed before he destroys the world of someone else by getting behind that wheel drunk. Again.


Look at Rolf Harris. All the papers (in the UK at least) are carrying the story of the song he is supposedly going to release after he serves his time. A song where he gives further abuse to those who dared to come forward and report their ordeal at his hands.
And we only know about it due to him being a celebrity.
How many others continue to torment their victims once released? How many go on to new victims when released?
And if these people are still considered a danger, why are they released in the first place?

John Sheffield

If our culture is going to treat sex offenders this way, I would like to see the sorts of Wall Street types and predatory lenders that almost tanked the economy go through something appropriately similar.

John Sheffield

Clearly the cause of a large portion of the measures highlighted in the piece stems from this country's unhealthy relationship with sex.

I don't think the causes are much different between the treatment of sex offenders and the push to strip women of child bearing age of their civil rights.


One problem with discussion programs is that they almost always just scratch the surface of any issue. Indeed, much of the time is devoted to a repetition of the talking points on both sides. When it comes to sex offenders, the two sides are: (1) Sex offenders do great harm to their victims, they can't be "cured," and therefore they should be punished and stigmatized for life; (2) Not all sex offenders are violent, rapists, or pedophiles, and unlike murderers, sex offenders are put on registries and harassed for life after serving their prison sentence, making any return to normal life difficult if not impossible.

Steven Levitt says that he doesn't like to get into the moral aspects of issues, as if economics can be devoid of morality. That said, he offers this moral tidbit: If society feels better stigmatizing a class of people that it fears - sex offenders in this case - then so be it. Levitt says that some crimes are so heinous that we want offenders to be tracked for the rest of their lives. And therein lies the rub.

If we are talking about HEINOUS crimes, there isn't any controversy. Indeed, if we're talking about heinous crimes the offenders are serving life sentences with no chance of parole, or facing a death sentence.

How do we define a "heinous" crime? Are there degrees of heinous? Are all murders heinous? Is murder more heinous than rape? Is the murder or rape of an adult more or less heinous than pedophilia that doesn't involve intercourse? The average sentence for murder in the US is about 20 years, and ex-murderers are not placed on public registries. Offenders convicted of non-sexual violence are not put on registries either. Neither are drunk drivers who have killed people, and so on. If we're talking about violent sex offenders, the only controversial questions would be why we don't register and stigmatize ALL violent offenders, whether such registration and stigmatization is doing any good, and how effective therapy is.

Of all the industrialized nations, the US has the highest rate of child death due to parental abuse and neglect. Is this a heinous crime? Should the parents be put on a registry? Should they be sterilized so they can't have more children? Should the US be put on a registry and stigmatized by the other industrialized nations? How about all the US citizens, including children, who die for lack of medical care? Are we ever going to get past the talking points, and past superficial talk of crime and punishment, and start addressing the reasons why the US has so much violence of all kinds? Isn't it reasonable to wonder if it's all connected somehow?

Another, almost separate controversial topic is what we do with non-violent sex offenders. This program gives us the oft-repeated case of the 19-year-old who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old, and for comic relief, the streaker. I think it's time for people like Levitt to get off the moral neutrality soapbox.


Joy Whitt

I had to stop listening after the statement that individuals with non-sex offender criminal records have it easy when returning to society. I encourage the Freakonomics team to find statistics on all returning citizens in the work force. The "worst case scenario" of getting fired (or not hired at all) with a record of arrests/convictions is much more prevalent than anyone wants to admit.


Marty Robinson

Thank you for having a grown up conversation about a subject most want to sweep under the rug.

Its important to consider that estimates are that 90% of all sex crimes are undetected. These harsh sanctions also have the unintended effect of paralyzing nearly everyone among this 90% with fear insuring not that they will stop, but rather insuring they will not be seeking the help they desperately need. These types of behaviors are typically progressive in nature and thrive in isolation and under stress. These folks are not hatched, boundaries are broken down sometimes over a life time. My experience has been that many of these individuals are experiencing great shame over these acts, and that some among the 90 would be prone to seek help if the societal paradigm were one of seeking to heal these individuals rather than to destroy their lives. Before we say the hell with them, consider for every person who is too terrified to seek help a victim will likely to go on suffering. How do you calculate the human costs in terms of victims that may have experienced relief but will not because of our outrage and zeal to punish what we claim in our own rhetoric is a sickness. Ignorance has always bred chaos not progress. These behaviors are very hard to wrestle to the ground without outside help and the shame and fear we choose to perpetuate prevents people from seeking that help.

Something else that needs to be considered is the fact that 93% of victims are known to the perpetrator, and the vast majority of those are daughters, sons and nieces of the abuser. These cases represent broken families and there are of course numerous costs there as well; both human and economic. Perhaps instead of our society continuing to confuse justice with never ending revenge on these individuals we should be focused on bringing a good percentage of the unknown offenders into recovery and healing these families. Perhaps were reconciliation is being sought between the abused and the penitent abuser we should facilitate rather than continue to separate. 30 years ago this was the standard of care before the age of "tough on crime" war on this or that politics. To continue to level sanctions at the victimizer in reality exacerbates these family's wounds. Victims don't need our outrage. And these sanctions have all evolved from a sense of outrage. People fear what they don't understand and choose not to understand that which they fear.

The primary argument for a nationwide sex offender registry accessible to the public and life time post release supervision arise out of a popular cultural myth supported by a viral case of cognitive dissonance feed by the media and politicians seeking votes from the ignorant masses. Stranger Danger is not a serious approach for prevention. Our focus is totally on the wrong individuals which is a costly waste of resources that should be going toward education aimed at prevention, detection, and recovery.

Recidivism for a new sex offense among those adjudicated for a sex crime are minuscule compared to other crimes. If you mentioned that I apologize, I missed it. I wonder how that factors into the idea we can not "rewire" or help people self manage undesired sexual tendencies? These situations are rarely a function of a pathological disorder, but are more commonly poor decision making and poor boundary setting abilities, typically brought on by some type of trauma, often from having been physically or sexually abused themselves. True pedophiles and sociopathic child rapists, murderers are very very rare among SOs. Lets stop throwing these terms around like all SOs are irrevocably mentally ill. And by the way, I don't mean to imply there is no hope for pedophiles. Many manage with various forms of support quite well.

Bottom line, the reality is it’s not Chester down the block who is already under supervision for inappropriately touching his niece. He’s already facing his demons and is statistically highly unlikely to re-offend. And whether or not he decides to re-offend is not dependent on his crime and face being plastered across cyberspace from Aberdeen,Washington to Miami, Florida. The clear and present danger to children is not Chester; it’s their Uncle Ernie who has never been caught.

How do we draw uncle Ernie out? With threats of never ending punishment, and permanent social banishment, or by our culture collectively deciding to moving toward compassionate healing which has the added benefit of rescuing the unknown victims of these abusers. Let s do a cost benefit analyses on that approach.

What of the cost to our freedoms. When we are willing to sacrifice the liberty of others on the alter of fear, all liberty suffers.

Remember the evidence clearly shows the enormous number of RSOs only represent a tiny fraction of those engaging in these types of behaviors. Also try to remember these 800,000 RSOs nor the 8,000,000 undetected did not crawl out from under rocks, they are peoples sons, daughters, husbands and wives who have made terrible mistakes who could, with help go on to lead productive healthy lives. Everyone deserves a second chance. Just makes good economic sense.



Levitt said it was unfair for people to pay for sex abuse crimes based on laws enacted after they were convicted. How does he feel about marijuana users in jail in Washington or Colorado where it is now legal?


Why do they make sex offenders take polygraph tests when every study done on the subject proves they are, at best, ineffective?


Andrew - They claim it's a tool to help gage a persons openness in therapy. Every time the administer gives an SO a polygraph, there is a Q&A before hand that among other things offers the opportunity to tell whether they've been completely honest with their therapist, have engaged in any trigger behaviors, or have been guilty of any new undetected violations, then the questions are asked again during the test.
Because the person is understandably intimidated and nervous before the test begins, this technique does illicit some confessions on a continuum from, well, I haven't shared "everything", to I've been up to my old behaviors and have broken the law or a parole agreement. If there is good will on both sides, and the infraction is minor this new found openness can be used to drive therapy, if there is ill will or the infraction is serious, it becomes evidentiary and can be used to aid a recommendation to violated the persons parole.
It also generates income for the agencies that administer the test off the taxpayer or the offenders backs. These testers are often affiliated with the same clinical provider contracted to provide treatment. But the fact they are unreliable does call some of the supposed benefits into question, other than people feeling compelled to confess they're not fully invested in their recovery. Not saying I agree with polygraphs, but will say an SO must be vested in his or her recovery to be successful. Good news.. stats bear out the vast majority are successful.



One of my big issues with this is that it painted all sex offenders with the same brush. I run a halfway house in Pennsylvania that is mostly compiled of sex offenders. We do get some rapists and others in that sphere, but we also get a ton of child porn, sitng operations, and sex with minors. None of this is okay, but to say that all sex offenders always will deal with their issue is false. We've had guys who say, "yes, this is an issue for me but I've learned to always get acocuntability and to not put myself in situations where I am weak." One guy had sex with two underage girls, but was 20 at the time and had no idea they were minors (they testified that they lied about their age). So to paint all with the same brush doesn't work.
In addition, hurt people hurt. I fair amount of our guys have had some sort of abuse in their background. So to simiply use harsh punishment as a deterrent doesn't neccesarily work because of the deep seed hurt (and often abuse) that many have suffered themselves.
None of this is an excuse but often the punishment does not fit the crime. Many of the really dangerous sex offenders often never get out.
In PA, the rate of a sex offender committing a new sexual crime is roughly 3%. That is pretty much consistent nation wide, varying by a percent or two


jonathan ball

i am a gay man who was accused by a 15 1\2 year old female of fingering her... in most states, especially new hampshire, all there needs to be is an accusation. Mine is a very long and complicated storey, but after passing three polygraphs and a state phyco-sexual exam (18 hours), all of which i passed with flying colors, New Hampshire prosectutors office ruthlessly kept on prosecuting me. I even helped put the real offender away for 37 years (her step father). While investigating me, they took 7 computers and out of thousands of files on these computers, they found 1... thats 1, item of child porn which they knew had never been opened by me. ferensics even stated that the first to view and open the file was the Pembroke police.they then charged me with possesion of child porn.even though 8 cops who searched my home, camper, 4 cars and my business, found nothing related to children. It cost me (and my husband of 22 years) over $100.000 to defend me. I am now a registered sex offender, a felon and my name is ruined for life.. there is no help for the accused. I hired a top law firm, and did all the right things... but still nothing stopped the state from this craziness. I was even evealuated by one of the top phyco sexual experts in the country who deemed me a no treat to children... it will continue to cost me a lot of money for the rest of my life. oh yeh.. and never ever beleive what you read, and see on the news, because 90% of what was reported on me was totally false.



Perhaps it would be interesting to sample some of the findings in the American states against that of Ontario’s sex offender registry. One of the key differences being that the information obtained for the Ontario registry is kept confidential from the public. Its intent is focused on tracking those who have been convicted of a sex offence in order to use that data to provide community supervision by trained professionals and allowing the police to manage future crimes quickly and effectively with the aim of reducing victimization. For example, should a child go missing in a certain area, the police are able to canvas the registered ‘high risk’ individuals immediately. Perhaps due to the fact that the registry is not publicly available, compliance rates tend to be much higher than those noted throughout the States, hovering around the 96.84% mark. Initial numbers suggest that recidivism tends to be lower in areas with a confidential registry compared to those publicly available. It would be interesting to look at whether lower recidivism is due to more successful reintegration into the community in areas where offence history is kept confidential or higher recidivism is due to increased monitoring and reporting by the community in areas where the registry is made public. Recently (May 2015) Global News obtained data on sex offender residences by postal codes through the Freedom of Information Act and released maps outlining this. This seem to have done little more than sensationalize fear by the public while taking a step to dismantle the level of engagement by sexual offenders built over the past 15 years by the Ontario Correctional system.