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:

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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.