Registry Effectiveness & Sex Offender Management

effectiveness-sex-offender-registry-studies.jpgDo the laws passed to regulate sex offenders work?

Is there a better approach?

This page contains a compilation of recent studies, policy papers and articles about the effectiveness of the sex offender registry and other policies impacting registrants and their families. You can click on the article title to view the full document.


A Reasoned Approach: Reshaping Sex Offender Policy to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, 2011

Joan Tabachnick and Alisa Klein, Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

A Policy Paper by the leading treatment organization treating sexual offenders, comprised of therapists, social workers, researchers, probation and parole officers that offers a comprehensive evidence-based approach to sex offender management. Among its observations:

“The broad application of legislative policies to adults, adolescents, and even children convicted of sexual abuse has created unintended negative consequences.”


"Understanding the research on the diversity of individuals who sexually abuse can be tremendously helpful in creating policies that are effective and not overly broad."


Perverted Justice:  Sex offender laws represent the triumph of outrage over reason., 2011

Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor, Reason Magazine, The Reason Foundation

An article from the leading libertarian thinktank. An excerpt from the article:

“American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions.”


Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?, 2010

J.J. Prescott, 
University of Michigan Law School and Jonah E. Rockoff
, Columbia Business School and NBER

A study using detailed data on state sex offender laws and incident-level crime data from the FBI, examined the effect of registration and notification on the total frequency of crime and recidivism and concluded, in part:

“Importantly, we find no evidence that notification laws (as opposed to registration laws) reduced crime by lowering recidivism—the estimated effect is actually weaker when a large number of offenders are on the registry. This finding is potentially consistent with a number of explanations. But, as we show below, the evidence on balance supports the existence of a significant “relative utility” effect, in which convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crime when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make crime more attractive.”


Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?, 2010

Amanda Y. Agan, University of Chicago

A study that utilized three separate datasets and designs to determine whether sex offender registries are effective. First, state level crime data is used to determine if sex offender registries decrease the rate of sexual crimes.  Secondly, a dataset of sex offenders released from prison in 1994 is examined to determine if registry laws reduce the rate of recidivism.  Finally, geographic data was analyzed comparing locations of sex crimes in Washington D.C. with the residences of registered sex offenders in the city to determine if knowing the location of former offenders helps predict the location of sex crimes.  The study found:

“The results from all three datasets do not support the hypothesis that sex offender registries are effective tools for increasing public safety.”


Exploring Public Awareness and Attitudes about Sex Offender Management: Findings from a National Public Opinion Poll, 2010

Center for Sex Offender Management, U.S. Department of Justice

A national survey of 1,005 respondents examining public opinion on sex offender issues and comparing the public’s perception with known research.  Among it conclusions:

“Overall, the results indicate that, although community members hold some beliefs that align with current research about sex offenders and various sex
offender management strategies, they also have several misperceptions that can potentially impact their expectations and support for policies that are not likely to result in their intended public safety outcomes.”


Collateral Damage: 
Family Members of Registered Sex Offenders, 2009

Jill Levenson, Ph.D.; Lynn University & Richard Tewksbury, Ph.D.; University of Louisville

A study of 584 family members of registered sex offenders to examine the impacts of the registry on family members. Among it’s findings:

“The public disclosure to which sex offenders are exposed is unprecedented, and therefore SORN (Sex Offender Registration Notification) is unique in the degree to which invisible sanctions are inadvertently imposed upon and experienced by loved ones of offenders. As such, SORN creates impacts that are broad, and as illustrated in this study, deep and lasting. Family members, even those who do not live with RSOs, experience harassment, threats, violence, economic hardships, difficulties with housing, and psychological stresses simply because they are related to a sex offender. Whether intended or not, the criminal justice system, via SORN policies, extends punishments to a wide swath of society beyond sex offenders.”


Unjust and ineffective:  America has pioneered the harsh punishment of sex offenders. Does it work?, 2009

The Economist

An article examining sex offender policies in the United States.  From the article:

“So laws get harsher and harsher. But that does not necessarily mean they get better. If there are thousands of offenders on a registry, it is harder to keep track of the most dangerous ones. Budgets are tight. Georgia's sheriffs complain that they have been given no extra money or manpower to help them keep the huge and swelling sex-offenders' registry up to date or to police its confusing mass of rules. Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association cites a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married. “It doesn't make it right, but it doesn't make him a threat to anybody,” says Mr Norris. “We spend the same amount of time on that guy as on someone who's done something heinous.”


Sex Crimes on Halloween, 2009

Mark Chafin, University of Oklahoma; Jill Levenson, Lynn University; Elizabeth Letoumeau, Medical Univesity of South Carolina; Paul Stern, Snohomish, WA

National incident-based reporting system (NIBRS) crime report data from 1997 through 2005 were used to examine 67,045 non-familial sex crimes against childer aged 12 and younger.  Incidents of sex crimes committed on or near Halloween were compared to other times of the year.  The study concluded, in part:

"Sexual molesters sometimes use seemingly innocent opportunities to engage children for sexual abuse and therefore might be expected to use trick-or-treat for ulterior purposes.  However, this logic does not appear to translate into an increase in sex offenses around Halloween.  The absence of a Halloween effect remained constant over the nine year period, beginning well before the current interest in Halloween sex offender policies and extending to recent years."


Does a Watched Pot Boil?  A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Offender Registration & Notification Law, 2008

Jeffrey C. Sandler, Naomi J. Freeman, and Kelly M. Socia; School of Criminal Justice, State University of New York at Albany

An analysis that looked at sexual re-offense rates of sexual offenders both before and after the enactment of the Sex Offender Registry in New York State.

Quoting from the study’s abstract:

“Despite the fact that the federal and many state governments have enacted registration and community notification laws as a means to better protect communities from sexual offending, limited empirical research has been conducted to examine the impact of such legislation on public safety. Therefore, utilizing time-series analyses, this study examined differences in sexual offense arrest rates before and after the enactment of New York State's Sex Offender Registration Act. Results provide no support for the effectiveness of registration and community notification laws in reducing sexual offending by: (a) rapists, (b) child molesters, (c) sexual recidivists, or (d) first-time sex offenders. Analyses also showed that over 95% of all sexual offense arrests were committed by first-time sex offenders, casting doubt on the ability of laws that target repeat offenders to meaningfully reduce sexual offending.”


Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy, 2008

Kristen Zgoba, Ph.D.; Philip Witt, Ph.D.; Melissa Dalessandro, M.S.W.; Bonita Veysey, Ph.D.; Office of Policy & Planning, New Jersey Department of Corrections

A study of sex offender recidivism in New Jersey examining 10 years before and 10 years following the adoption of Megan’s Law.  Among its findings:

“Despite wide community support for these laws, there is little evidence to date, including this study, to support a claim that Megan’s Law is effective in reducing either new first-time sex offenses or sexual re-offenses.”  New Jersey also looked at the growing costs of implementing Megan’s law and concluded, “Costs associated with the initial implementation of Megan’s Law, as well as ongoing expenditures, continue to grow over time.  Start up costs totaled $555,565 in 1994 and now current costs (in 2007) total approximately 3.9 million dollars.  Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan’s Law, the researchers are hard-pressed to determine that the escalating costs are justifiable.”


No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US, 2007

Human Rights Watch

A research paper from the internationally recognized organization, which concluded in part:

"Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good."

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