There's evidence that sex offender registries are crowded with too many people who pose little threat to the community, like those convicted of fornicating with with other teens or sexting photos of themselves. Even if the system isn't perfect, we assume that it's still a valuable tool to protect us against dangerous offenders like rapists and pedophiles. However, according to troubling new research, sex offender registries aren't doing much to reduce crime, and may actually encourage people to reoffend.
Two studies that quesiton the effectiveness of the registries were recently published in the Journal of Law and Economics. The first is a bit less depressing. Columbia University and University of Michigan researchers reviewed data from 15 states that introduced and began to enforce registration and notification laws over the past decade. They found that registration laws, which require that offenders to check in with police and provide information after they're released from prison, do have a significant effect on sex crimes. States with registration requirements and average-size registries had a sex crime rate that was about 13% lower than the sample's average. These laws make it easier for police to monitor sex offenders and seem to discourage people from repeating their crimes.
Yet, the researchers found that public notification laws are counterproductive. While some first-time offenders may be discouraged from committing a crime, introducing public notification laws led to slightly higher sex crime rates. The researchers believe sex offenders may be more likely to repeat their crimes when their information is made public because, "the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime-free life relatively less desirable."
A second study by University of Chicago Ph.D. student Amanda Agan concluded that registries are ineffective across the board. She found the introduction of registry laws didn't change a state's sex crime rate. She also looked at information on 9,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994, and determined whether they were arrested again. If anything, those released into states with public notification laws were slightly more likely to reoffend. Finally, she looked at Washington D.C. census data and found that having a sex offender living on your block doesn't make you more likely to be the victim of a sex crime.
Sex offender registries comfort us by making us feel like we have some ability to protect our family against the most heinous criminals. In some cases, being able to identify a sex offender has helped people avoid danger, but the research suggests that as a whole the system isn't working like it should.Though we're attached to the idea that public registries make us safer, we may need to rexamine the effects of these laws and change them if they aren't actually helping.