Let’s Talk About Sex (Offenders)

By Marc Allen

First, let’s put some things on the table. There is wide consensus that sexual assault is under reported. There is some disagreement about just how under reported sexual assault among adults is (and some controversy about how it is defined and measured), but there are good estimates that only about a tenth of sexual abuse against children is ever reported. Abuse against children is especially heinous because of the lifelong harm it can inflict on the survivors and the subsequent costs it imposes on society.

Now, let’s talk about one hugely counterproductive way to deal with sexual assault: public sex offender registries.*

Public registries started appearing in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous, with the help of federal legislation, by the early 2000s. Since then, both the feds and the states themselves have slowly been expanding their registries and adding restrictions to registrants.

There have been a number of good pieces in the last few years critical of public registries. HereHere. And here. But public registries remain popular. Some states have expanded their registries in the last decade and/or added additional restrictions to registrants.

You can imagine why this ratcheting upwards keeps happening.  Being pro sex offender isn’t a terribly popular political stance.  Take geographic bans for example. Once registrants are banned from living or loitering within 500 feet of a school, it’s easy and good politics to to expand 500 feet to 1000 feet (or even 2500 feet).  After that, it’s easy to add daycares, parks, churches, and Chuck E Cheese’s to the list of protected places.

The end result of these geographic bans is that large portions of cities become off-limits.  Densely populated areas are especially bad. Here’s a map of the city of Grand Rapids, blue areas are within 1000 feet of a school, red areas are within 1000 feet of a day care:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.37.10 PM

This is crazy for a couple of reasons.  First, there’s no data showing that these kind of “school safety zones” have had any effect on the rates of sexual violence committed against school age children.  Most sexual assaults against children are committed by family or friends.  These geographic bans are based on stereotypes and misplaced fears.

Second, as the map above shows, these policies prevent registrants from living or loitering in huge portions of cities.  Which, turns out, is a good way to make someone more likely to recommit a crime.  When offenders are released from prison, they often have no place to go because friends or family members willing to put them up live within one of these exclusion zones.  Stress and instability are huge drivers of recidivism, and registries create both.  Law and economics researchers have found that public registries can actually make registrants more likely to recommit sexual crimes and consequently decrease public safety.

These safety zones are just one of many requirements with little to no empirical justification.  Some registrants are also required to register for life.  This means that a 18 or 19 year old convicted of certain offenses will face reporting requirements, public monitoring, fees, and housing restrictions into their 70s.  As with other crimes, the likelihood that someone will recommit decreases with age, such that the likelihood of an octogenarian recommitting a sexual offense is only slightly higher than him medalling in Olympic ice dancing. Besides the stats, as Human Rights Watch points out, applying these lifelong restrictions to teenage offenders is wildly unjust.

Anyone who takes sexual violence seriously should be pissed.  The feminist/anti-sexual violence community has common cause here with civil libertarians and the good government crowd.  Public registries allow for the kind of othering that makes people feel like they’ve done something about a problem. In reality we’re ignoring the problem. Public registries are the worst of all worlds. They’re a cop out, they’re expensive, and they’re dumb.

*I’m distinguishing public sex offender registries, where offenders faces are posted on a public website (often with their addresses and places of work), from private registries that only law enforcement agencies can access.  There is some data suggesting that the latter actually do have an effect on recidivism rates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good idea, but at least puts them in the arena of sane policies we can debate.


16 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex (Offenders)”

  1. The sex offender registry is a solution to a non-existent problem. It needlessly disseminates false fear and concern to the populace and they have the nerve to call it “community notification.” it is nothing but a reverse cry wolf and akin to yelling: “FIRE!” In a crowded theater. If the registry did not exist tomorrow, children would not be less safe. TRUTH.


  2. The registries put children in danger. Many registrants have children of their own who are ostracized, bullied, and tormented. To those who advocate registries ‘for the children’: SHAME ON YOU! This is a very expensive, ineffective program that keeps growing, but there’s nothing in the budget for victim services or education to prevent sex crimes in the first place. Unfortunately, the idea of doing something ‘for the children’ only entails doing something ‘against sex offenders.’ I expect a misled, frenzied public and their elected officials to fall for this, but how judges and justices uphold it is beyond me! The path to hell is the only ‘shovel ready’ job in America.


  3. Mike that’s a great point. There are studies that show that the children of registrants experience a great deal of unnecessary stress. I’ve come across families who’s children had to be taken out of school for days at a time, because part of the school’s sex ed curriculum involved learning how to search the sex offender registry. You can imagine how awful it would be to sit in a room of your peers and have someone find one of your parents listed.


  4. Shelly – this is a personal bias, but I think legal challenges are the best bet here. I would contact your state ACLU affiliate and see if they’re working on the issue. If so, donate. If not, tell them they should be.

    Obviously, also contact your state reps and tell them you think this is a terrible waste of money.


  5. I agree with Shelly inquiring as how we make change, or what can be do about it. The ACLU is not necessarily capable or amenable to sex offender issues in each state. What other ways will change occur?


  6. It’s common knowledge that anyone who thinks we should call off the witch hunt and stop burning them at the stake is in league with the devil though! 🙂


  7. As evidence becomes available that the public sex offender registry is making the public LESS safe, some activists will have to start running for elective office. It pleases me that anyone now doing so will be able to state that the facts show for sure that the best way to increase public safety is by removing the public sex offender registry, by actively rehabilitating former offenders and by instituting a much LESS expensive education and treatment regimen.


  8. No person (even registered ex-sex offenders) are for anything that might harm children. Many registered sex offenders are parents as well and most offenses by those on the registry are NOT involving children. Remember these citizens after going through probation, therapy and time served wish only to live normal lives with their families. 95% of sex crimes against children aren’t from those on the registry but are new offenses by those in the families of the victim and by those known to the victim. The registered sex offender recidivism rates are only 1.9% according the the latest California Department of Justice report. California has the largest population of registrants in the nation (105,000 and growing). The DOJ is NOT a friend of sex offenders. So these stats are factual. Why do we have probation and parole Departments? It’s so that those that come out of jails and prisons must walk a hard tight rope up to 5+ years to ensure they’re safe to be back in society. The sex offender registry serves no real purpose other than to enact continued harm on these citizens and their families. The registry is a form of Living Death, it is Evil and it is wrong. It was started from a place of fear and darkness and continues to grow by leaps and bounds adding more and more punitive measures at the whim of any politician looking to get elected. The registrant is today’s new whipping boy for votes. There are children on that list as young as 9 years old. This adds to the sad truth of our country no longer being a place for second chances, liberty and freedom. The registry ladies and gentlemen is not a thing of freedom but of Tyranny! No wonder we have 50% of the world’s prison population with only 5% of the world’s population. In time either you will be a part of the criminal injustice system or have a job servicing it in one form or another. TRUTH. Wake up sheepeople The reason why so few re-offenses happen by registered sex offenders is due to those in law enforcement including probation and parole. Those people have a thankless job but it is one part of why those getting out of incarceration remain safe in society. I’m quite overt and out in front of fighting for the rights of those that have paid their debt to society. I should perhaps live in fear, but I took an oath as a 16 year Army Veteran (to fight against enemies foreign and domestic) not to give into terrorist, and in fact sir, yes those that support the sex offender registry are in fact terrorist (in my humble opinion). Terrorist come in many forms. One of them is in the form of spreading lies and partial truths. In fact the most harmful type of terrorist in our society are those that support these kind of draconian laws. In time I believe truth will rise above the lies like in the days of McCarthyism and the communist black list that had evil people like Lucille Ball on it. Perhaps he didn’t like her sense of humor. The other truth is I believe in the power of change. I believe one day we will be able to stand hand in hand with the most vile of former ex- sex offenders and recognize that the only constant in life is change and yes second chances and change can go that far. My fight is as much for that change in you as it is for that of the whole sex offender registry. Yes even for those haters out there, I believe they are worth fighting for as well. TRUTH.


  9. I was convicted (plead guilty for lack of funds to defend my honor) of a sex offense 25 years ago, went to prison, was illegally sentenced to probation afterwards (which I just recently won the case and had it dismissed – 25 years later!! and 6 months in jail!!!) .At the time I took the plea bargain there did not exist any laws pertaining to registration or publication of my criminal record on the internet. If I had been aware of such consequences I would have taken my chances with a PD and gone to trial. Nevertheless I left the Damned USA because of all the prejudice and the difficulty it has imposed upon my life. and have lived a crime free life in another country amongst people who do not judge you by your past but by your present conduct. I had been living in a Mayan community for 10 years and operating a tourist related business UNTIL SOME AMERICAN EXPAT (ex-marine sniper) decided to post by mugshot and criminal record on every telephone pole in the tourist sector and what happened? the American tourists quit patronizing my business (not the Europeans) and I had a very popular business!!!So even living in another country I am still suffering the consequences because of internet publication of my criminal record. I can go on and on about how wrong the US Govt is about their policies concerning sex offenders but to what good! The USA has more money than me and I will never beat them at their own game and their own rules. I hate the USA . Govt. and look forward to renouncing my citizenship. Someday, everybody will suffer the consequences of the deprivation of their privacy and not only us “sex offender terrorists”. This is just the beginning……….


  10. I was put on registry when i was 17 . I was charged with first degree burglary and was bein told i was facing life…so my lawyer gave me a plea deal to peeping tom 1-3 yrs because the victim seen me look thru window prior to breaking in…I didnt look thru any window before breaking in…i was young and one mistake has screwed me for life. I took the deal because ofcourse i was scared it being my first time goin to jail and the police and gaurds are all telling me im going to be in prison for the rest of my life….the justice system is corrupt. I feel as tho i was robbed of my freedome and future before my life even started.


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