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Does Sex Offender Registration Deter Crime?

Studies Find They May Not Increase Public Safety

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Most states have online registries

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Laws requiring sex offenders to register with law enforcement and notifying the public of their location may make us feel safer, but two scientific studies of these laws found they really do not do much to protect the public.

In fact, one study found that making sex registry information available to the public may actually backfire, producing higher overall rates of sex crimes.

Registration Works, Notification Doesn't

One study did find that requiring sex offenders to register with police can significantly reduce the chance that they will re-offend. But the same study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Columbia University, found that making that same information available to the public can backfire.

Reviewing data from 15 states over a 10-year period, the researchers examined separately how registration laws and notification laws worked in those states.

Registration Reduces Sex Crime Rates

In looking at registration laws, the researchers found:

  • Even in smaller communities, registration of sex offenders reduced sex crimes by 13 percent.
  • The larger the registry, the greater the reduction in sex crime rates.
  • Registration reduces crime by discouraging re-offending rather than deterring first-time offenders.

Notification Encourages Recidivism

However, when a state has both registration laws and public notification laws, it can actually hamper the sex offender registry's crime-reducing ability. The researchers found:

  • Public notification may deter first offenders, but it appears to make released offenders more likely to re-offend.
  • States which added public notification of their registries saw slightly higher levels of sex crime rates.
  • Registration discourages sex offender recidivism, but public notification encourages it.

Nothing Left to Lose?

The researchers speculate that the reason public notification encourages recidivism is because the offenders may feel they have nothing else to lose.

"Convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crimes when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime-free life relatively less desirable," the researchers wrote.

Larger Study Finds No Effectiveness

A broader study, conducted by a researcher at the University of Chicago, found no evidence that sex offender registries increase public safety. The study found that registries do not reduce crime trends, recidivism or local sex crime rates.

First, the researcher compared sex crime arrest rates in states before and after they passed registration laws and found no significant difference.

Then the study looked at 9,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994, half of whom had to register and half who did not. There was little difference in recidivism between the two groups, in fact, those who did not have to register had slightly less recidivism rates.

Registries Do Not Increase Public Safety

Finally, the researchers looked at population blocks in Washington D.C. and compared blocks with more registered sex offenders with blocks with fewer offenders. The study found no difference in sex crime rates.

"The results show that knowing where a sex offender lives does not reveal much about where sex crimes, or other crimes, will take place," the researcher wrote. "That result calls into question the rationale for creating registries in the first place. Sex offender registries do little to increase public safety, either in practice or in potential."

Almost all states now have searchable online databases of their registered sex offenders available to the public. Some states do not have every county's offenders listed and some states only list those who were convicted after the state's public notification law was passed.

Sources:

Prescott JJ, et al, "Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?" Journal of Law and Economics February 2011.

Agan, AY "Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?" Journal of Law and Economics February 2011

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