Sex offender registration

Keeping up the theme of interesting empirical results as I catch up on my journal reading, here’s some research out of the US on the effect of maintaining a register of sex offenders and notifying the community where they reside.

Sex offenders have become the targets of some of the most far-reaching and novel crime legislation in the U.S. Two key innovations in recent decades have been registration and notification laws which, respectively, require that convicted sex offenders provide valid contact information to law enforcement authorities, and that information about sex offenders be made public. …We find evidence that registration reduces the frequency of sex offenses by providing law enforcement with information on local sex offenders. As we predict using a simple model of criminal behavior, this decrease in crime is concentrated among “local” victims (e.g., friends, acquaintances, neighbors) with no evidence of less crime occurring against strangers. We also find evidence that notification has reduced crime, but not, as legislators anticipated, by disrupting the criminal conduct of convicted sex offenders. Our results instead suggest that notification deters nonregistered sex offenders, and may, in fact, increase recidivism among registered offenders by reducing the relative attractiveness of a crime-free life.

So notifying the community, probably the most controversial aspect of sex offender registration policies:

  • Deters new offending; but,
  • Encourages repeat offending.

The policy-relevant part is probably the overall reduction, but it’s interesting to note the contrast between common wisdom and the results: the notion that notification helps the community protect their children appears to be unfounded and it actually makes previous offenders more dangerous.