Do Sex Offender Registries Actually Work?

Crime control theater (CCT) is a rather cynical term being used more and more by social science researchers examining how effective many policies intended to stop crime really are.  There have been numerous examples given of ineffective policies that appear to fight crime but actually do very little.  These include the AMBER alert system for notifying communities of missing children (which are generally ineffective and can even lead to copycat crimes) , "safe haven" laws allowing parents to abandon their children,  TSA security policies, Scared Straight programs that are often counterproductive, and a host of other well-intended policies that look good on paper and are useful in securing the "tough on crime" vote despite being largely a waste of money.

But what about sex offender registries?  Formed after the passage of   Megan’s Law and the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Acts (among other acts), these registries are intended to monitor convicted sex offenders.  Open to the public in virtually every U.S. state (linked by a national portal operated by the federal government), sex offender registries provide the names, current addresses, and offence history of any registered offender to anyone seeking that information online.   Of the 800000 sex offenders current listed on registries, 75 percent have their information available to the pubic.  The rationale behind these registries has been to warn the public of potential predators in their communities as well as recruiting members of the public and the media as an "electronic posse" to identify any registered offenders who might be living in areas where they could encounter children. 

Unfortunately, there are a wide range of public misconceptions about the kind of people listed in the registries and how dangerous they really are.  Given the different sex offender laws currently in place in many U.S. states,  the reasons that a convicted offender may be placed on a registry can vary widely and often without any consideration of whether they actually pose a risk to the community.   The stigma associated with being a registered sex offender can be extreme however and cases of vigilante violence, including homicide, are disturbingly common. 

While public support for laws protecting the public against sexual offenders remains strong,  actual evidence that the laws, and the severe penalties many states impose on convicted offenders, actually work to protect the public is mixed at best.   Not only sexual offenders typically seen as posing a high risk to the community,  they are also considered incapable of being rehabilitated, . There also seems to be frequent misconceptions about the kind of offenders placed on sex offender registries, only a small percentage of whom are repeat offenders or who have offended against child victims. 

With this in mind, how effective are sex offender registries in actually preventing future crimes?   It seems to depend on who you ask.   Recent surveys of law enforcement professionals who actually work with sex offender registry information found that 66 percent believed that popular misconceptions about sex offenders can  often lead to problems with publicly available information.   Speaking as a forensic psychologist who has worked with thousands of sex offenders over the years, I tend to share that opinion as well.   Part of the problem is that states can vary widely in terms of the kind of information that is made available.  While some states only release information about high-risk offenders, other states release all information regardless of actual level of risk

In a study recently published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law,  Kelly Socia and Andrew J. Harris of the University of Massachusetts Lowell examined popular misconceptions about sex offenders and how it affects public confidence in sex offender registries.  The study was part of a nationwide Web survey of 1000 U.S. adults matched to reflect the general U.S. population nationwide.    All participants were asked questions estimating their beliefs about registered sex offenders in terms of risk of reoffending, their general beliefs about how sex offender registries were used, political orientation, religious beliefs, actual knowledge about the effectiveness of sex offender legislation, and whether or not they had ever used the registry themselves.

Results showed that about seven out of ten participants reported believing that 50 percent or more registered sex offenders were either pedophiles or else at high risk of committing future sex crimes.  They were also more likely to believe that most sex offenders victimized strangers rather than those known to them.  Belief in  risk that sex offenders will reoffend seemed strongly linked to political orientation.  Conservatives tended to be more likely to see offenders as  high-risk than non-conservatives.

Overall, most respondents in the study tended to share certain popular perceptions about convicted sex offenders.   Not only do they believe that convicted sex offenders are all dangerous predators who need to be kept locked up but also  that sex crimes are on the increase (they aren't).  These beliefs seem to be especially strong for respondents who have never actually used a sex offender registry and who feel that current legislation isn't tough enough to curb what they consider to be an epidemic.

As the number of registered sex offenders continues to grow, it's becoming more important than ever to find better ways of dealing with them.   Though current get tough policies have been proven by research to be ineffective, they still have widespread support from policy makers and voters.    While there policies are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, it is probably more important than ever to find  better safeguards for the information available on sex offender registries to ensure that they actually protect the public as they were originally intended.  

So, are sex offender registries just another example of crime control theatre?   You be the judge.



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