The Unintended Consequences of Sex Offender Registries

An article in the March 14th issue of the New Yorker describes the negative effects of sex offender laws on juveniles who get caught up in a legal system designed to protect children from adult sexual predators.  Adolescent sexual experimentation, especially when accompanied by age mismatch, and child misbehavior have become criminalized in ways that those interviewed in the article see as unintended, mistaken, and counterproductive.

The unanalyzed premise of the article, however, is that the public labeling of adult sex offenders is good public policy.  The logic underlying public notification laws for adults would seem to be sound: if a known sex offender is looking for a new victim, isn’t it useful if the offender’s neighbors know the person is a threat and can take measures to reduce their own risk of victimization?

In an article in Regulation Professor J. J. Prescott of the University of Michigan Law School examines the separate effects of police registration and public notification requirements on the incidence of sexual attacks.  He concludes that “each additional sex offender registered per 10,000 people reduces the annual number of sex offenses reported per 10,000 people on average by 0.098 crimes (from a starting point of 9.17 crimes). This sizeable reduction (1.07 percent) buttresses the idea that we may be able to use law enforcement supervision to combat sex offender recidivism.”  But the reduction is confined to friends and neighbors and has no effect on sex offenses against strangers.

In contrast public notification deters those who are not already registered but increases recidivism among those who are.  “… for a registry of average size, instituting a notification regime has the aggregate effect in these data of increasing the number of sex offenses by more than 1.57 percent, with all deterrence gains more than offset.”  “… the more difficult, lonely, and unstable our laws make a registered sex offender’s life, the more likely he is to return to crime—and the less he has to lose by committing these new crimes.”  “…if these laws impose significant burdens on a large share of former offenders, and if only a limited number of potential victims benefit from knowing who and where sex offenders are, then we should not be surprised to observe more recidivism under notification, with recidivism rates rising as notification expands.”