Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.