Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Case Against Public Sex Offender Registries

USA FAIR, an organization that advocates for an intelligent sex offender registry, suggests that such a registry would remain public but would limit those subject to public scrutiny. As the executive director of USA FAIR explains, “USA FAIR does not oppose the sex offender registry. We do, however, strongly believe that public notification should be applied only to the truly dangerous…” and “Let’s modernize the public registry by making it smarter, by using the vast body of research to stay true to the Kankas’ founding principle of targeting the truly dangerous….”

While fully agreeing that those accurately assessed to be clearly dangerous warrant stricter scrutiny if and when they are released into the community, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc.—RSOL—differs with its sister advocacy organization on the concept of a public registry. If the constitutional, civil, and human rights of even a small group of citizens are placed at risk, ALL are at risk of losing those rights. As long as even a small handful of people can be punished by public registration schemes, law and policy makers will continue to press for the inclusion of more people and more offenses.

USA FAIR cites the recently released Human Rights Watch study showing the futility, danger, and negative consequences of registering juveniles publicly, points with which RSOL is in full agreement.

This report, “Raised on the Registry,” (previously blogged about) and even more so their 2007 report, “No Easy Answers,” make it clear that a public sex offender registry is lacking in redemptive value for all offenders, be they juvenile or adult. This is echoed in “Registering Harm,” a report prepared by the Justice Policy Institute. Although this report’s focus is also on juveniles, the report unequivocally condemns the public registration scheme as mandated by the Adam Walsh Act as ill-advised and counter-productive, as shown in this introduction to the report:
Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law that requires
states to include children as young as age 14 on registries — often
for the rest of their lives — in an attempt to protect our children from
sexual violence. But the Adam Walsh Act won’t keep our children safe.
Instead, this law will consume valuable law enforcement resources,
needlessly target children and families, and undermine the very purpose of the juvenile justice system.
Joining this condemnation are experts, psychologists, researchers, and government agencies. Notable among them is Dr. Jill Levenson of Lynn University and author of a significant number of studies and reports. While various aspects of the negative consequences are focused on, depending on the study and the author, one fact is consistent among everyone who has researched and written on this topic: There is no correlation between public safety and a public registry; there is no discernable impact on recidivism rates or sexual offending rates due to the public registry.

Public registries provide no measurable protection for children or the general public yet endanger the well being of children and family members of registrants. Several states have done before/after studies that show NO statistical change in arrests and convictions. While being a total waste of public resources with no benefit to public safety, public registries do put a great deal of money into the pockets of fear-mongers.

What then is the answer?

RSOL promotes laws and programs limiting registry access strictly to law enforcement agencies and boards of probation and parole. This is based on the belief, strongly supported by research and evidence, that even if public registries are scaled back to publicize only persons convicted of the most heinous offenses, this would only set the expansion process in motion again. In another twenty years, we would again be where we are now, registering even teen sexting and consensual relations between young people.

RSOL has the same goal as USA FAIR and every parent and child-advocacy organization, seeking the highest good for the safety of our children. A public registry does not enhance that good. The only registry RSOL can envision as being in any way useful is one entrusted exclusively to those trained and equipped to deal with it: law enforcement and law-enforcement-related agencies.

An intelligent registry is a registry that accomplishes its purpose. The purpose must be the enhanced safety of all citizens, and that will never be found in a public registry.


  1. I agree completely with your position. A similar argument is faced when contemplating the death penalty, which according to its proponents is reserved for the "worst of the worst". A subjective term such as this is never adequately defined (who/what is "worse"?") and "authorities" often fall back on "future dangerousness" to guide a decision of who is sentenced to LWOP, and who is not. (Sound familiar yet?) A "fair" or "sane" (or pick your other acronym/adjective) registry is an oxymoron, as there is nothing "fair/sane" about the unconstitutional, shaming, punitive nature of our current registry model. If registries are unfair, ineffective and destructive to one registrant family, they are unfair, ineffective and destructive to all. There is also a significant difference of opinion within the mental health community as to what instruments perform best when evaluating risk. As long as that question remains open, any registry predicated on it will be ... problematic.

  2. I would only add that current database search capabilities are sophisticated enough to do a BETTER job for the law enforcement community than the current registry. It does no good, but plenty of harm.

  3. The wording allows for too many of the same mistakes. For example what are going to be classified as the truly dangerous. The registry in Oklahoma has spousal abuse as part of the registry. Is this going to be classified as truly dangerous? The person that made a very poor decision, choice, and had one victim where there was no threat, "is this going to be classified as truly dangerous?"



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