by Michael McKay
A fascinating study conducted in 2010 at the University of Michigan Law School and Columbia Business School by JJ Prescott and Jonah E. Rockoff took the novel approach of treating sexual offense registration and public notification as two completely separate policy actions, each with its own set of consequences for registrants, the public, and community safety in general.
In practically all previous studies that have attempted to measured the costs, benefits, and efficacy of sexual offense registry laws, the policy functions of registration and notification were invariably lumped together, making it difficult – if not impossible – to determine what works and what doesn’t, and more importantly, why. This rather novel approach by Prescott and Rockoff enabled them to arrive at some conclusions with potentially important ramifications, especially for those in the registry reform movement.
For the record, most registry reform advocates (including The Registry Report) have always maintained that sexual offense registries do not work. They fail miserably at making our communities safer and come at a terrible cost to everyone involved – not just to registrants, their families, and employers, but also to the courts, law enforcement, corrections facilities, communities, and taxpayers. This is a position that has been supported by nearly every credible study done on the subject.
The complete repeal of SORNA (the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which is Title I of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006) and the abolishment of the sexual offense registry is, by far, the preferred outcome of our judicial reform effort. But even incremental progress toward a more just and humane system would be more than welcome by many. Achieving our goals may require facing hard truths that we’re not exactly enthusiastic about and accepting the good along with the bad. Such may be the case with this study, which seems to be a classic case of “good news and bad news.”
First, the bad news: Prescott and Rockoff conclude that non-public sex offense registries that are for law enforcement agency use only may actually reduce recidivism when it comes to what they term “local” potential victims – people already known to the registrant.
And now the good news: Public notification seems to have exactly the opposite effect, increasing recidivism significantly. The authors of the study postulate that this may be the result of criminal behavior becoming a more attractive alternative for the registrant to the hardship, humiliation, and public shaming of public notification.
In essence, when you take away a person’s dignity, his family and societal ties, the ability to get and keep a job, and threaten to make him homeless, you shouldn’t be terribly surprised if he returns to criminal behavior. For the most part, these supposedly unintended consequences are the result not of registration, per se, but of public notification and the resulting social hysteria that comes wih it.
Their conclusions are presented here, verbatim:
We find evidence that actual registration of released sex offenders is associated with a significant decrease in crime. This is in line with predictions from a simple model of criminal behavior in which providing information on offenders to local authorities increases monitoring and the expected punishment for recidivism. Moreover, the drop in the overall frequency of reported sex offenses associated with registration is due primarily to reductions in attacks against “local” victims who are known to an offender (i.e., a family member, friend, acquaintance, or neighbor). Importantly, sex offenses by strangers appear unaffected by registration, indicating little or no substitution from local to more “distant” victims.
We also find that the implementation of a notification law (regardless of the number of registered offenders) is associated with a reduction in the overall frequency of sex offenses. One potential explanation for this effect, again consistent with our model, is that notification raises the punishment for future offenders. 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.
This particular paragraph deserves special attention:
Our estimates imply that notification laws reduce crime when the size of the registry is small, but that these benefits dissipate when more offenders become subject to notification requirements. At the average registry size, in fact, we find that a notification regime (not including the distinct effects of a registration system) increases the number of sex offenses by more than… 3 percent.
You can read or download the study (which is in PDF format) here: Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior? by JJ Prescott, University of Michigan Law School and Jonah E. Rockoff, Columbia Business School.