Two newly published studies question effectiveness of sex offender laws

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Lots of information in the below email by Bill Dobbs.

Lots of material in this post….main thing is that two studies were just published that are casting doubt on whether sex offender registry laws work as intended. The studies are attached as PDF files. Although published by a scholarly journal they’re getting noticed, check out these two commentaries from important newspapers:

Chicago Tribune: The false hope of sex offender registries

Boston Globe: Far from protecting children from predators, public notification can increase recidivism

There’s more below:

- links to blog coverage – Slate, Jezebel, Marginal Revolution, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal and more

- newspaper coverage – Boston Globe column, Chicago Tribune column

- a press release about the studies, from the journal’s publisher

Blog coverage

Do Our Laws Encourage Sex Offenders?

Slate Magazine (blog) - ‎Aug 31, 2011‎

Sex Offender Registries May Not Be Very Effective

Jezebel - ‎Aug 31, 2011‎

Studies Question Effectiveness Of Sex Offender Laws

RedOrbit - ‎Aug 31, 2011‎

Fear without Function: Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Crime?

Marginal Revolution - Aug 15, 2011

But they make us feel like we're doing something, right?

‎Chicago Tribune (blog) - Aug 15, 2011

Level 3 sex offender hopes public registry will end for the rehabilitated

‎ – Sept 1, 2001 – includes streaming audio

Sentencing Law and Policy: Two new pieces in Journal of Law & Econ examine efficacy of sex offender registries

Sentencing Law and Policy – Aug 31, 2011

Two new pieces in Journal of Law & Econ examine the efficacy of sex offender registries – Sept 1, 2011

Newspaper coverage

Gareth Cook’s column for the Boston Globe (below) was also picked up by the Austin Statesman-American in Texas

and the Star-Tribune in Minnesota

Boston Globe [Boston, MA]

August 28, 2011


Far from protecting children from predators, public notification can increase recidivism

By Gareth Cook, Globe Columnist

THE MOST disturbing experience I’ve had in some time was a visit to a state government website.

On the screen was a list of all the dangerous sex offenders who live or work near my house. All I had to do was enter my zip code, and a list of profiles popped up. For each, a criminal history was displayed in stomach-turning legalese - “indecent assault and battery on child under 14 years of age.’’ The offender head shots were even more alarming: some appeared openly deranged, others vacant, but all had the distinct aura of pure evil.

The profiles are posted online as part of a national effort, nearly two decades old, to warn the public about sex offenders. The registries are expanding, and some states are moving to track other types of criminals. You can even get an iPhone app that shows offender addresses. This is an effort I have always supported. I have kids. But recent research suggests that publishing the personal details of sex offenders is not only ineffective, but could lead to more sex crimes.

Our current policy of publicizing personal information about offenders is rooted in two particular cases. In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man in Minnesota. Jacob has never been found, and the crime never solved, but it inspired a federal law that requires states to set up registries to track certain classes of criminals, including sex offenders.

Then in 1994, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl was lured into a house by a neighbor who offered to show her a puppy. The neighbor, a convicted sex offender, then raped and murdered her. The case inspired “Megan’s Law’’ in New Jersey and a federal provision requiring states to publicize details on released sex offenders.

The rationale is straightforward: People who have been warned can take precautions. Crimes will be prevented.

Yet a 2008 study of New Jersey, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, found no evidence that the measure reduced sex crimes and suggested that “the growing costs may not be justifiable.’’

Now an even more ambitious pair of studies, published in the Journal of Law and Economics, suggests notification laws are an empty comfort.

One study of 49 states found that posting sex offender information on the Internet had no effect on the incidence of rape. Another analysis took the home addresses of all the sex offenders living in Washington, D.C., and compared them with reports of sexual abuse. The researcher, Amanda Agan of the University of Chicago, found no correlation. A sex offender on the block doesn’t affect the crime rate. Or, put another way, knowing that a sex offender lives nearby tells the public nothing about the actual risk of a sex crime.

The second study found that public notification laws do serve as a deterrent, slightly reducing the number of first-time sexual offenders. That makes sense: Nobody would want their photo and personal details published that way.

However, public notification can also bring an even larger increase in recidivism. Putting a person on a public registry, with their photo and home address, subjects them to harassment and makes it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society - to find and keep a job, or find a place to live. Small punishment, you might say, given the crimes. But the effect, starkly put, is to reduce the rewards for living honestly. On average, write the scholars J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff, public notifications increase sex offenses by about 1.6 percent, and the effect worsens as more criminals are included.

The question we must answer is, what do we want for these people, after they have been released? There is an emotional response, of course: a life of everlasting punishment. Then there is a more reasoned one: do whatever it takes to minimize the chance of more crimes. We should follow the evidence, however counterintuitive or distasteful it might seem. There are former sex offenders living in your midst, and it’s better you not know where they live.

--Gareth Cook can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.


Chicago Tribune [Chicago, IL]

August 18, 2011


The false hope of sex offender registries

An effort to combat predators comes up empty

By Steve Chapman

At age 14, J.L. impregnated his girlfriend in a consensual encounter. This was bad news on several grounds, the worst being that she was 15 months younger. Convicted of rape for having sex with a 12-year-old, he will have to register as a sex offender — for the rest of his life.

Last month, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the verdict, while admitting that it made little sense. "Application of the first-degree rape statute to the present facts does not create an unintended absurdity," the justices concluded. The absurdity must have been deliberate.

J.L. isn't the only person to be ensnared by ridiculous interpretations of laws affecting sex offenders. A Michigan man convicted in 1984 of rape was supposed to report his home address to police after getting out of prison in 2002. Being homeless, he tried to comply by providing the address of a homeless shelter where he got his meals.

Not good enough, said the Michigan Supreme Court a few weeks ago. It said he can be sent back to jail for failing to file the address of whatever spot he laid his head each night.

Sex offender registries once sounded like an urgent necessity. They came in reaction to publicized crimes in which children died at the hands of convicted sex offenders. One of the most shocking involved a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, who in 1994 was raped and strangled by a paroled child molester living across the street from her home.

New Jersey enacted "Megan's Law," subjecting sex offenders to registration and community notification, so police and citizens would be aware of known risks. Today, all 50 states maintain registries and make at least some of the information available to the public.

But this was a reasonable notion that has been damaged by indiscriminate expansion. It's one thing to notify neighbors when a serial rapist moves in. Many states, however, lump frisky teens in with violent adults. Others, reports Jacob Sullum in Reason magazine, include mopes who were caught trolling for prostitutes or urinating in public.

Some states also put broad curbs on where convicted sex offenders may live. In Miami, many of them have taken up residence under a causeway for lack of an alternative. This outcome may not warrant sympathy, but it makes it harder for police and citizens to keep tabs on them.

Such flaws would be of minimal consequence if the laws served to prevent crime. The surprising revelation is they don't.

A 2008 report funded by the U.S. Justice Department found the original Megan's Law in New Jersey to be a nonevent. The policy, researchers documented, "showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses" and "has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses." The zero effect had a cost above zero — nearly $4 million annually for the 15 counties included in the study.

A more comprehensive study was undertaken by Amanda Agan, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, and published recently in the Journal of Law and Economics. Analyzing data from across the country, she detected no tangible gains from this approach.

"Rates of sex offense do not decline after the introduction of a registry or public access to a registry via the Internet, nor do sex offenders appear to recidivate less when released into states with registries," she writes. Evidence from Washington, D.C., shows no connection between the number of sex offenders on a block and the rate of sex crimes.

That doesn't mean you and I are crazy to prefer knowing about the pedophile next door. But it suggests that the information offers no actual benefit.

After all, most convicted sex offenders do not go on to be arrested for new sex offenses, and more than 90 percent of child victims are assaulted not by strangers but by relatives or other people they know.

Sex offender registries may cause parents to focus on the remote peril while ignoring the more pertinent one. And, as in the examples cited earlier, they can inflict harsh punishment that departs from common sense and does nothing for public safety.

Shielding citizens from vicious predators is unquestionably one of the central functions of any sound government. Megan's Laws were enacted in the sensible pursuit of that goal. What they offer in practice, though, is counterfeit comfort.

--Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at

Press release from University of Chicago Press Journals:

August 30, 2011

Contact: Kevin Stacey 401-284-3878 University of Chicago Press Journals Studies question effectiveness of sex offender laws

Two studies in the latest issue of the Journal of Law and Economics cast doubt on whether sex offender registry and notification laws actually work as intended.

One study, by J.J. Prescott of the University of Michigan and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, found that requiring sex offenders to register with police may significantly reduce the chances that they will re-offend. However the research also finds that making that same registry information available to the broader public may backfire, leading to higher overall rates of sex crime.

Meanwhile, another study by University of Chicago Ph.D. student Amanda Agan finds no evidence that sex offender registries are at all effective in increasing public safety.

Prescott and Rockoff—Do Sex Offender Registries and Notification Laws Deter Crime?

Using data from 15 states over more than 10 years, Prescott and Rockoff examine the evolution of sex offense rates as states passed and began to enforce their registration and notification laws. Registration laws require that sex offenders check in with and provide information to the police following their release from prison, whereas notification laws make sex offender information available to the public, often via the Internet. The researchers analyze sex offender registration and notification laws separately, which is important because the laws are designed to work in very different ways.

Prescott and Rockoff find that a registration requirement without public notification reduces reported sex crime substantially, most likely through better police monitoring and more effective apprehension of recidivists. For a state with an average-sized registry, a registration requirement reduces crime by about 13 percent from the sample mean. The drop in crime gets larger as registries grow larger, indicating that registry laws lower crime by discouraging registered offenders from re-offending, as opposed to discouraging potential first-time offenders.

In contrast, public notification laws, such as the listing of released offenders on the Internet, may actually undo some or all of a registry's crime-reducing power. While Prescott and Rockoff discover that the threat of being subjected to notification deters some potential first-time sex offenders from committing crime, released offenders appear to become more likely to do so. In fact, adding public notification to an average state's registration law leads to slightly higher levels of total reported sex crime. Taken as a whole, the research shows that while police registration discourages sex offender recidivism, public notification actually encourages it.

Why would public notification encourage sex offenders to re-offend? Perhaps because they have little else to lose. In particular, notification can make the threat of prison less effective. According to Prescott and Rockoff, their findings suggest that "convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crimes when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime-free life relatively less desirable."

J.J. Prescott and Jonah E. Rockoff, "Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?" Journal of Law and Economics 54:1

Amanda Agan—Sex Offender Registries: Fear Without Function?

Agan finds no evidence that sex offender registries are effective in increasing public safety.

Her study used three different types of analysis to test the effectiveness of sex offender laws. First, she compared arrest rates for sex crimes in each U.S. state before and after registry laws were implemented and found no appreciable changes in crime trends following the introduction of a registry.

Second, Agan tested whether registries discourage convicted offenders from re-offending. To do that, she looked at data on over 9,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994. About half of those offenders were released into states where they needed to register, while the other half did not need to register. She could then compare crime rates in the two groups.

She found little difference in the two groups' propensity to re-offend. In fact, those released into states without registration laws were slightly less likely to re-offend.

"The results show that an offender who should have had to register appears to behave no differently, or possibly worse, than on who did not have to register," she writes. "If anything, registered offenders have higher rates of recidivism."

Third, Agan looked at census blocks in Washington D.C. to see if higher numbers of sex offenders in a given block correspond to higher rates of sex crime arrests. She found that crime rates in general, and sex crimes in particular, do not vary according to the number of sex offenders in the area.

The block-by-block analysis was designed to assess "the potential effectiveness of registries by considering whether where offenders live is predictive of where they offend," Agan writes.

"The results show that knowing where a sex offender lives does not reveal much about where sex crimes, or other crimes, will take place," she writes. That result calls into question the rationale for creating registries in the first place.

She concludes that sex offender registries do little to increase public safety, "either in practice or in potential."

Amanda Y. Agan, "Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?" Journal of Law and Economics 54:1.

Established in 1958, The Journal of Law and Economics publishes research on a broad range of topics including the economic analysis of regulation and the behavior of regulated firms, the political economy of legislation and legislative processes, law and finance, corporate finance and governance, and industrial organization. The journal has published some of the most influential and widely cited articles in these areas. It is an invaluable resource for academics as well as those interested in cutting-edge analysis of current public policy issues.

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