Why Sex Offender Registries Keep Growing Even as Sexual Violence Rates Fall

Why Sex Offender Registries Keep Growing Even as Sexual Violence Rates Fall

 “These policies don’t work—let’s focus on something that does work.”

Lists that include out-of-state visitors are inflating the numbers and keeping fear at a boil.

by Steven Yoder, theappeal.org

Quentin (not his real name) was convicted eight years ago of child pornography possession in Florida. He served his time and has since moved to another state. But his sentence required his photo and other personal details to appear on Florida’s sex offender registry, and there they will stay for the rest of his life, even if he never sets foot in the state again.

The state’s registry is padded with thousands of Quentins, people who don’t live in Florida. Under a change to state law passed this spring, there will soon be more: Starting July 1, out-of-state registrants who visit for at least three days (down from five) must go to a sheriff’s office to have their personal details added to Florida’s list. If they don’t, they face a third-degree felony.

Rules like that aren’t unique—22 other states keep out-of-state visitors on their registries for life, according to a study released last November. It’s one reason state lists misrepresent the actual number of people with sex-crime records living in communities. As already-bloated lists keep ballooning, they feed the impression of a growing population of dangerous people who require ever-more-extreme laws to monitor and control.

On May 30, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) released its latest nationwide count of names on state sex offender registries. For the first time ever, the total was more than 900,000. NCMEC spokesperson Staca Shehan told The Appeal the organization doesn’t share data on growth trends because changes in state laws and other anomalies can make it difficult to accurately compare the data across years. But calculations by William Dobbs of Dobbs Wire, who tracks sex-offender registry developments nationwide, show a 3 percent jump in the nationwide number in the last six months. That’s slightly faster than in the past; increases have fluctuated between about 3 and 5 percent annually since 2007. Even if the growth rate returns to that historical average, by 2021 more than a million names will be on registries.

Many of those entries are duplicates like Quentin or represent people who are not actually part of a state’s population for some other reason. In a 2014 study in the journal Crime & Delinquency, a research team found that in the 42 states and two territories studied, 19 percent of those on registries were still behind bars, 9 percent lived out of state, and 3 percent had been deported. Of Florida’s 55,000 registrants at the time, more than 31,000 were in one of those three categories. “It’s a concern of ours,” Shehan said of problems with the count. She says NCMEC has no way of knowing how often an offender shows up on multiple state lists. “So that means then there’s duplicated offenders in our grand total,” she said. “And we have no way of knowing how often that happens.”

Dobbs, an adviser to the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center affiliated with the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, says the inaccuracies are symptoms of a malignant logic at the heart of registries: that people who have served their time should be put on public lists because of the ineffable risk of what they might do in the future. Problems with registries can’t be fixed, he says, because the concept itself is a “broken” one. “It turns people into suspects forever—or at least as long as they’re on it,” he said. “The politicians have created this giant naming-and-shaming train and are fueling it with fear.”

One of Quentin’s cousins is getting married in October and invited him to be in the wedding in Florida, says Quentin’s mother. But to participate in the various events, he would need to stay more than three days—meaning a trip to the local sheriff’s office to get a new photo taken and have the address where he’s staying and the license plates of any cars he will drive added to Florida’s public registry. So Quentin is skipping the wedding.

Even if registry counts are inflated, it’s likely that the real number of registrants is rising as state lists scoop up an ever-broader swath of the population. One reason: New state laws governing who must register are typically applied retroactively to cover those who offended before the laws passed.

(Retroactive punishment is banned by the U.S. Constitution, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that being placed on a registry doesn’t count as punishment. Since then, as evidence has emerged that registration is indeed punitive, the retroactive provisions of state sex-offense laws are being struck down: Several courts have ruled since 2016 that they violate the Constitution’s ban.)

Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed in 2006, states have been required to expand their registries to cover people convicted of a broader set of crimes. The number on Wyoming’s registry in 2011, for instance, rose to 1,450 from 125 after the state passed legislation compliant with the act that required children and teens to be registered. As other states try to comply by passing new laws, additional categories of people get put on their registries, Shehan says.

And sex-offense laws trigger long registration periods, making entry onto the list mostly a one-way door. In 19 states, sex offender registration lasts for life for adults; in 16 others, it’s 15 to 30 years; and in another 14, it’s a minimum of 10 years, according to the Restoration of Rights Project run by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center and its partner organizations.

NCMEC’s steadily inflating number is catnip for those who traffic in evergreen scare stories. One website advises parents to use the map in deciding where to move. States with high per-capita sex offender populations might not be a good choice, it implies. NCMEC itself may feed those fears with its marketing: On its website, photos of missing kids are adjacent to the link to its sex offender tracking map.

But research shows that sex-offender maps have almost nothing to do with protecting children. Nearly all sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone not on a registry; first-time offenders commit north of 90 percent of new sex crimes, according to studies in New York and Minnesota. Most sexual violence victims know their perpetrators—86 percent in a Bureau of Justice Statistics study published in 2000. And those with a sexual offense on their record have low sex-crime reoffense rates: 12 percent on average, according to a definitive 2014 meta-analysis of 21 other studies. Those same researchers found that re-offense risk declines the longer that someone lives in the community crime-free. For those who hadn’t reoffended by 10 years after an initial sexual offense, their risk of committing a new sex crime was 1 to 5 percent—a rate comparable to ex-offenders with no history of sex crime.

Sex-offense laws trigger long registration periods, making entry onto the list mostly a one-way door.

All of that might explain why the registry count and sex-crime rates are traveling in opposite directions. Multiple studies show rates of sexual violence falling significantly after the early 1990s. “I care about [the inflated count] from a policy perspective because it keeps people in fear,” said Alissa Ackerman, a California State University, Fullerton criminologist who was part of the 2014 Crime & Delinquency research team and has co-authored numerous studies of sexual-offense issues. “It keeps them wanting legislation—you know, we have to do something. … It’s maps like this and propaganda like this that keep people feeling that way.”

Ackerman says rather than expanding the list, more resources should be focused on sexual-violence prevention programs and on mental health services and treatment for people who have experienced and committed sexual abuse. “That’s not where we’re putting our money,” she said. “These policies don’t work—let’s focus on something that does work.”

Shehan says NCMEC’s map isn’t intended to scare people. The group’s prevention education materials make clear the danger of sexual abuse committed by a stranger on a registry is small, she says. But she acknowledges that message could be clearer on the map itself. “We’ve taken several precautions and made adaptations to the map in the past,” she said. “That’s one I can definitely add to the list of considerations.”

This article was originally published on TheAppeal.org on July 3, 2018; reprinted with permission. Copyright, The Appeal, a project of Tides Advocacy