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When facts aren't facts: A look at the effectiveness of sexual offender registries

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Sexual offender registries were passed under the assumption that offenders are likely to commit more crimes, yet studies now show only a small portion are likely to re-offend.

The passages of sexual offender registries have grabbed headlines as steps toward public safety against unchanging “predators” who are being released back into society.

The registry laws themselves have cost billions of dollars and generally are passed with overwhelming support.

But do they work?

“These kind of laws have a limited usefulness, which is they make it difficult for offenders to keep their anonymity but that’s about it,” said Kristen Houser, chief public information officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

The laws, commonly referred to as Megan’s Law registries, require that sexual offenders have their photograph, address and other personally identifiable information posted to a public registry after the offender is released from prison.

They also are usually passed under the premise of public safety following a high profile event, using the notion that sexual offenders are highly likely to commit more offenses when they are released.

“I think there are very few things that scare parents more than being concerned that somebody is going to sexually assault or kidnap and kill their child,” Houser said. “It is a terrifying thought.”


An update to Pennsylvania’s 1996 registry law in 2011 included that the “Legislature found that ... sexual offenders pose a high risk of committing additional sexual offences, and protection from this type of offender is a paramount government interest.”

“If you ask people how often sex offenders will commit a new offense when released into the community, people tend to think it’s upwards of 75 percent,” said University of Massachusetts Professor Jason Rydberg, who focuses on the study of sexual offenders and policy.

However, overwhelming research has shown that sexual offenders, as a whole, are some of the least likely groups to commit new crimes, Rydberg said.

Rydberg said one major study found that only about 5 percent of sexual offenders committed a new sexual crime within five years. The U.S. Department of Justice places the re-offense rate for sexual offenders as low as 3 to 10 percent, and a study conducted by Karl Hanson found that out of 8,000 offenders that were tracked, none who remained offense-free for 15 years were likely to reoffend after.

To put the threat posed by sexual offenders committing new offenses in perspective, a 2014 study found that roughly 3 percent of felons with no known history of sexual offenses committed one within roughly five years.

“People tend to be skeptical that sex offenders are amenable to treatment, and this is related to supporting punitive policies against them,” Rydberg said. “With this issue too, research combining dozens of studies and tens of thousands of sex offenders finds that certain types of treatment are effective at reducing the likelihood of sexual recidivism.”

Passage of bills

Patrick Cawley, executive director and counsel for the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, said the assertion that outlined the state’s need for the law likely came from evidence presented during a committee hearing, but that he was unable to find any supporting data that was used.

There were no committee hearings for the 2011 registry update bill, according to the Pennsylvania Senate Library, yet it received unanimous approval from the judicial committee and full legislature before being signed by then Gov. Tom Corbett.

The legislature’s finding that sexual offenders are likely to reoffend and thus pose a great threat to society has also been refuted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In 2014, the court ruled that a provision of the law that placed juvenile offenders older than the age of 14 on the registry for 25 years was unconstitutional.

The decision was made in large part because of evidence that showed juvenile offenders reoffend at a rate of only 2 to 7 percent.

The court objected to the premise that all sexual offenders pose a great risk saying that the imposition of the sexual offender registry on juveniles was an “irrebuttable presumption” that was based on a fact that was “not universally true,” Arizona State University professor of Law Ira Ellman wrote in his article “Frightening and High.”

In part, Pennsylvania’s update, which added more than 2,000 offenders to the registry, according to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Adam Reed, was passed so the state would become compliant with the federal Sexual Offender Registry and Notification Act.

Failure to come into compliance with the law would have cost the state a portion of its federal grant money.

SORNA was sponsored by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who has the statement on his website “Convicted sex offenders often evade current state registration requirements and go on to commit additional offenses” on his website about his support for the legislation.

Given more than a week to prepare, staff for Sensenbrenner was unable to provide any data or evidence used to support that statement.

“While they have good goals, which is public safety, what we’ve found is they have collateral consequences,” Rydberg said.


Rydberg said registration laws have been found not to significantly reduce sex crimes, and have made it more difficult for offenders to acclimate back into society, which in turn makes it more likely that they will end up in prison for a non-sexual offense.

Registry laws can also lead to a false sense of security for members of the community.

“The public is often mislead that if they check the registry and nobody lives in their neighborhood or nobody lives near their child’s school or whatever, that they’re safe,” Houser said. “These are not laws that are going to actually produce safety. We need to be focused on prevention in vastly different ways.”

Most victims of sexual violence – roughly 80 percent, according to Reed – know the person who committed the offense prior to the offense occurring.

“The vast majority of sex offenders are never going to be listed on a registry, period,” Houser said.

Houser also raised concerns about the cost of the registry laws and their enforcement, saying money spent on these laws could go to more effective prevention programs.

“There are substantial costs ... and I’m not going to say it’s not worth it but I am going to say that investing dollars into sexual abuse prevention and support programs for victims is probably not nearly as large of a budget item for the state government,” she said.

The Congressional Budget Office put a $1.2 billion price tag on the original SORNA law, with updates costing the federal government hundreds of millions more.

The bulk of Pennsylvania’s cost comes with the employment of six uniformed troopers and 21 civilians for the Megan’s Law division, according to Reed.

“If the goal of these various strategies is to reduce recidivism, then these policies have a high potential to be counter-productive,” Rydberg said. “Over the past 20 years, a vast amount of research has developed knowledge on the correctional strategies that are the most effective at reducing recidivism, as well as those that are ineffective.”


So, if the registries and post-release policies are not working, what can be done to provide public assurance that sexual offenders are not going to reoffend?

First, Rydberg said, the policies need to focus on the offenders seen as the most likely to reoffend.

Pennsylvania currently evaluates all sex offenders when they are convicted to determine which individuals present the most threat. Theses offenders are deemed sexually violent predators. This evaluation, however, is only used to potentially increase registry requirements.

All other offenders are classified based on the offense for which they were convicted and subjected to registry requirements based on that classification alone.

Sexually violent predators make up less than 10 percent of the state registry.

“A general trend here is that treatment focused strategies are much more effective at reducing recidivism than punitive focused strategies and it turns out that punitive-focused strategies actually make offenders worse,” Rydberg said.

He said effective treatment looks to get to the root cause of the behavior and change it through methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

“(These laws) sound good. It makes people feel good. It’s an easy sell in terms of votes,” Houser said. “Nobody wants to say ‘sex offenders deserve anonymity.’ You’re not going to get up and say that ... There’s limited usefulness to the laws but I do not think it’s the panacea or silver bullet that people would like to think that they are.”


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