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Sex Offender Registries Not Working With the Hardcore

• September 02, 2011 • 3:56 PM

While giving the public notice of sex offenders living in their midst reduces sex crime overall, it doesn’t seem to keep convicted offenders from striking again.

Sex-offender registries seem like sensible public policy on a number of fronts. They enable society to keep tabs on convicted offenders without paying the cost of further incarcerating them. In theory, they allow law enforcement to monitor people who’ve been released from prison without punishing them beyond their sentences. And they give families some sense of control over potential risks in their midst.

The idea is one of the more novel innovations in criminal law in decades. But it may not be working exactly as legislators intended, researchers J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff warn in a new paper. Studying crime statistics from 15 states, they find that sex-offender registries do reduce crime by aiding police and deterring would-be first-time offenders.

But registries may have the opposite effect on the population they target: convicted sex offenders. Registries – alongside public notification laws that publish offenders’ names on websites, mailings and newspapers – may actually increase recidivism because, as Prescott and Rockoff speculate, offenders may find life on the outside no better than it was in jail. That doesn’t completely undo the reduction overall in sex crimes, but it does chip away some at the benefit.

“The theory behind notification is that we don’t have as many police as we’d like, we can’t have a helicopter following every sex offender, so why don’t we in a sense deputize the public by giving them the information to protect themselves?” said Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “It seems like a really good idea until you realize that giving the public that kind of information means as a practical matter that the offenders are harassed, they can’t get jobs.”

They can’t go to the mall or live near their families. The effect, Prescott said, is akin to creating a jail outside of jail for released offenders.

“Then what we have is a set of people outside who don’t really care whether they’re outside or inside,” he said. “And why would they?”

Why would they be discouraged from committing the same crimes again?

Such laws started to appear at the state level in the late 1980s, and they were often prompted by specific incidents of gruesome violence. The 1996 federal law mandating public notification of sex offenders came about this way, too: It’s commonly known as Megan’s Law, named after a New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender whom her family did not know was living across the street.

“In the psychology of humans, the way we tend to think focuses on salient examples and stories,” Prescott said. “And Megan Kanka is a [strong] one where her parents said, ‘If we had only known, this never would have happened.’ That kind of argument is tough to argue with. I think people didn’t need much more in terms of studies to convince them this would be effective.”

States have implemented the requirement in various ways. Some make records publicly available at the police station if a concerned citizen wants to look them up. Others require “active notification” by a police officer who may knock on doors to explain that a sex offender has recently moved nearby. Other states maintain web registries or community mailings.

“The problem is there are a lot more unintended consequences of that,” Prescott said, “and sometimes decisions we make to improve our personal safety may make other people less safe.”

In their study, he and Rockoff, a professor at the Columbia Business School, separately considered the two elements of registry laws: one requires offenders to privately register with law enforcement, and the other requires public notification of that information.

The public notification, Prescott and Rockoff found, does work at deterring would-be first-time offenders. In fact, it’s likely much more effective than other deterrents, such as increasing sentence lengths. Psychologists have pretty well concluded that the human mind has a hard time processing – and fearing – the difference between, say, a 10-year sentence and a 15-year one.

“We’re not good at processing that information,” Prescott said. “But we are good at processing the fact that we’ll be pariahs for the rest of our lives.”

These laws, though, weren’t originally intended to function as deterrents. They were meant to prevent repeat offenses by people who have already been convicted and released. And the very pariah effect that scares off first-time offenders appears to be the same reason registered offenders don’t feel they have much to lose in being sent back to prison.

This is one of the paradoxes of trying to reintegrate sex offenders – and it also suggests we may want to rethink the idea of expanding public registries to other types of criminals.

Prescott is torn over the policy implications of this research. Allowing police to privately have registry information, he concludes, generally produces positive benefits for society. But maybe we should limit the public shaming to the worst class of dangerous offenders, or eliminate it all together (notification likely has other negative consequences, such as for property values, that the authors didn’t consider in this paper). If the public insists on notification, though, Prescott says we would need to figure out how to combine the alerts with better monitoring and programs that help reintegrate offenders even as we identify them, so that they view life outside of prison as something worth losing.

Prescott isn’t sure, though, we can do that.

“I don’t know that it’s possible to tell society, ‘these are very dangerous people and steer clear of them,’” he said, “but you should still come join this bowling league.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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