The Sex Offender Registry Doesn’t Work

Full disclosure: most of the content of this blog post is not mine. Almost all of it was researched, written and compiled by CarcinLoring at their own personal time and expense. It was, however, presented in a series of ten long Twitter threads, which are not the most easily readable form of presentation, so with Carcin’s permission, I’ve decided to gather it in one easily-accessible place with in-line citations for quick reference.

Carcin, incidentally, is a steadfast activist for the rights of incarcerated people, particularly LGBTQ folk. I would heavily recommend you follow them on Twitter.

Let’s dive in.

Recidivism and Risk

The vast majority of sex offences in the US are non-repetitive, and sex crimes have the lowest rates of recidivism. The Mercado and colleagues 2013 study showed that only 5% of convicted offenders committed a new sex crime in 6.5 years.

However, since the Registry opens a great potential for new felonies (specific to SOs) such as “failure to register”, “loitering in a protected area”, and “contact with another offender”, general recidivism for SOs is forced higher. This, coupled with the fact that offenders on the registry are more likely to be denied housing and work can make crime the only avenue for survival. These struggles push the general (non-sex crime) recidivism rate for SOs to 28%.

Despite these factors, 5% sexual re-offense and 28% general crime recidivism for sex offenders is remarkably low when compared to the recidivism rates for assault (59.6%), burglary (62.2%) and murder (52%). And yet, sex offenders are the only group subject to a specific registry.

Children on the Registry

Many are aware of the Sex Offender Registry in the US, and many are led to believe that it keeps them safe. But who is actually on the registry?

What if I told you it was more than 89,000 kids? The US has registered more than 89,000 children as sex offenders; many for being in consensual relationships with other kids their age. But it doesn’t stop there: in fact, the US SO Registry is 25.8% juveniles.

“But I thought the sex offender registry was supposed to PROTECT children!”

Actually, there’s a higher chance your child will end up on the registry than they are at risk of being harmed by a registered offender. Further, once on the registry, your child will not be able to attend public school, and they’re 52% more likely to be targeted by vigilante violence. They are also, in a streak of truly dreadful irony, more likely to be targeted by sexual predators. The Sex Offender Registry actually puts children at more risk than it prevents.

Thanks to new policies like SORNA (the Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act) which mandates the registration of anyone 14 and up, the risk of children being wrongly registered as sex offenders has only increased with time. Again, for the majority of juvenile offenders who make up a quarter of the registry, their crimes were harmless and non-repetitive – usually sexual acts with or sending naked photographs to other minors – yet they’re reported as dangerous people.

The Registry as a Tool of Racism

Who else is on the registry in disproportionate numbers? Black men.

A 2016 study by the University of Albany’s Law Division showed nearly 1% of all black men in the US are registered as sex offenders. Per the 2016 Census, approximately 22.4 million black men live in the US, which would make 1% of that figure around 224,000 people. This means black men make up approximately 30% of the Sex Offender Registry (from a figure of 750,000 total registered people in 2016).

Keep in mind that SORNA makes SOR registration mandatory and acts as simple as nudity or public urination can land a sex crime conviction. This is compounded by the fact that black men are 5.9 times more likely to be convicted of a crime than white men, and often receive longer, harsher sentences for the same crimes. Analysts speculate jury racial bias plays a role in this disparity. So it should be no wonder why black men are registered at twice the rate of white men, according to the same Albany study.

But why would the system do this? Well consider what typically happens to people on the SOR. Aside from being legally exiled from entire neighborhoods, districts, and regions, registered offenders are around 50% more likely to be the victim of vigilante assault, robbery, or murder, which rarely receives police attention.

In short, the Sex Offender Registry is a vector for legal, legitimized discrimination, hate, and violence. The Sex Offender Registry is one of the last remaining sources of legal racism and segregation in the US, and it’s used today to harm and displace black communities.

The Registry as a Tool of Homophobia

So far we’ve seen how the Sex Offender Registry is made up of 25% kids and more than 33% persons of color, but what about LGBTQ folk? Turns out the SOR is also a tool to attack members of the LGBTQ community.

To understand how LGBTQ people are put at risk by the Sex Offenders Register, we must first understand “Romeo & Juliet” laws. In short, R&J laws are a state-decided ruleset that protects teenage couples with an existing relationship when one partner becomes an adult before the other. This is, essentially, a failsafe to stop sexual or romantic relationships between teenage couples landing one of them on the register. Nearly half of the US has them.

Sounds fair and reasonable, right? Not exactly.

Firstly, consider the name: “Romeo & Juliet”. The law protecting teens from the SOR is named after an iconic cis-gender, straight couple. Sadly, that name is not a coincidence. In most applicable states, R&J laws are tailored to protect only straight couples; some with definitions that strictly cite heterosexual, “penis in vagina” intercourse. This leaves LGBTQ couples at risk.

Even in states with R&J laws, engaging in consensual gay/queer sex as a teen is not only still a sex crime, it’s often viewed by the CJS as explicitly deviant, which will both guarantee SOR registration and a much higher risk score.

Carcin stated:

As a personal observation, all of the young LGBTQ inmates I’ve spoken with on SO yards ended up there after their gay partner’s parents discovered their relationship and called the police. Effectively, their crime was being gay.

This is not uncommon, and once an LGBTQ person enters the Criminal Justice System, it’s game over. A Williams Institute study concluded that LGBTQ persons are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates with more than 238,000 locked up today. The study also showed that “sexual minorities” were far more likely to experience harsher punishment, mistreatment, and sexual abuse within the Criminal Justice System, and this is before they’re released to a life of abuse on the SOR.

This is further enforced by the 2012 Inmate Survey showing 1,882 LGBTQ individuals per 100,000 prisoners. The SOR goes beyond targeting LGBTQ persons, it’s also designed to both ignore their issues, and silence them; as a result, it’s near impossible to tell what percentage of registered offenders identify as LGBTQ.

However, with the above survey results showing that 42% of women and 9.3% of men in prison are LGBTQ, and the disproportionate rate of convictions for LGBTQ people, experts believe the percentage of registered LGBTQ offenders to be equally high.

In summary, LGBTQ people do not receive protections from the Sex Offender Registry while they also see disproportionately high rates of conviction and incarceration. From this, it can be inferred that LGBTQ people are at high risk of harm by the Criminal Justice System via the Sex Offender Registry.

Life as an LGBTQ Sex Offender

So you’re LGBTQ and you’ve been charged with a sex crime. Thanks to courtroom bias and mass-incarceration practices facing LGBTQ people you’ll most likely be convicted, regardless of innocence.

Here’s what to expect. Before proceed we have some questions:

  1. Are you transgender? If yes, so sorry.
  2. Do you have a penis? If yes, you get to undergo a mandatory PPG evaluation. What’s PPG? Brace yourself. PPG is the SO industry short name for Penile Plethysmography Test. Never heard of it? Yeah, that’s intentional. In short, the PPG is a test that involves measuring penile erection response using fluid filled ring attached to a monitor that’s placed around the subject’s penis. The subject is provided erotic material and arousal is monitored.In regards to perceived sex offenders, the PPG involves erotic material specific to the alleged offence. If the offence is child porn, for example, the tester will administer child porn materials to see if the subject is aroused. Notice the wording: “perceived sex offenders?” This is because courts will often request the PPG prior to trial, so you’ll have to do this before conviction. It’s optional at this point, but refusing the PPG looks really bad.
  3. Was your alleged sex crime an act that could be considered queer or gay? If yes, your risk score will be set arbitrarily higher. What’s risk score? It’s a measure that combines many factors to decide your risk of reoffending.

Now that that’s out of the way, you’re probably going to prison. What you’ll face there depends on what state you’re incarcerated in, but let’s look at the universal truths affecting incarcerated LGBTQ persons.

First of all, don’t expect any special treatment for being LGBTQ; believe me, you don’t want it. You’ll likely be placed in a facility/yard with people who have the same genitals as you, who have committed similar crimes.

Thanks to the prevalence of mandatory sentencing in the US, and the fact that, on average, sex crimes see mandatory sentences that are 3 times longer than most other crimes, you’re probably going to be there a while.

You’ll need to make friends and watch your back to survive your time there. LGBTQ people are 3 times as likely to be sexually victimized by both other inmates and prison staff. You can file a grievance, but most are ignored.

LGBTQ prisoners also face many other forms of mistreatment behind bars. Many face constant humiliation and degradation from staff and prisoners alike. Staff—who often are responsible for perpetuating abuse themselves—may blame LGBTQ prisoners for their own victimization, believing they are “flaunting themselves” and refusing to take grievances or reports of abuse seriously. If their vulnerability is recognized at all, it may be by placing them in indefinite solitary confinement, with little or no activity or human contact—conditions that can cause serious psychological harm and trauma, and which, as medical and human rights experts have found, can amount to torture. In other cases, LGBTQ prisoners’ requests for temporary protective custody are ignored.
Since prison does little to treat criminal behaviour and prison time actually increases recidivism, you’ll still need fixing afterwards. So: welcome to Sex Offender Probation and Parole! Population, you… just you, in fact. Yes, there are others on probation, more than 5 million in the US, actually, but you won’t be allowed to talk to them. That would be a felony. Let’s go over the rules:
  1. First, the obvious: you’ll have to register as a sex offender, pay the registration fee, give blood for DNA identification, and put your name, age, ethnicity, crime, phone number, and vehicle registration on a public registry.
  2. Second, no internet. That’s right, specific to sex offenders, you will not be allowed to have smart devices or internet access for the duration of your probation. For LGBTQ people, this means your support network is likely gone.
  3. Third, you cannot leave the state (or sometimes even the county) without permission. Got arrested in a bad place and want to move to a more LGBTQ friendly state? Too bad. You’re stuck here now unless you qualify for compact (unlikely).
  4. Fourth, any and all therapy, medications, surgeries, doctor visits have to be approved by your probation officer and may be refused without justification. Need gender therapy, or affirmation surgery? Yeah, probably not going to happen.
  5. Fifth, relationships/sexual activities must be reported to probation. This is where risk score comes in; if your gay/queer relationship is viewed as deviant, it will be counted against you, and you’ll be asked to cease contact.
  6. Sixth, you’ll have to attend regular, mandatory sex offender therapy that you have to pay for. Failure to attend or pay, or being ejected for any reason, will result in felony violation, and you’ll be sent back to prison. Here’s the kicker: Offender therapy is non-negotiable, and since it’s a private practice, it’s not subject to the same regulations as the Criminal Justice System. Meaning: if the state doesn’t have anti-discrimination rules, neither does therapy. This lack of oversight makes it possible (and common) for sex offender therapy to act as conversion therapy for LGBTQ people. It’s easy: does therapy consider your LGBTQ identity to be sexual deviancy? Then you either change or violate. Say you choose to stand your ground on your LGBTQ identity? Therapy will eject you. Your risk score will go up. You’ll go back to prison on a felony violation… and once you get out, you’ll have to go back to therapy again.

But say you survived prison, probation, and therapy somehow with your LGBTQ identity intact. Congratulations! Your reward is thousands in debt to the Criminal Justice System, 10-30 years of your life wasted, and the rest of your life as a registered sex offender.

Let’s talk about that.

Life on the Registry

We need to understand the reality of the Sex Offender Registry from the registrant’s perspective.

As someone on the sex offender registry, everyone will see you as a sex offender first and a person second. This is true for friends, family, dates, employers, authorities – everyone. For the rest of your life, you will be seen as no better than the crime you committed, and regardless of the actual severity of that crime – or whether you actually committed it – thanks to the Registry, society will treat you like a rapist.

Moreover because your place on the registry is permanent, it doesn’t matter how much time has passed since the crime, or what steps you’ve taken to better yourself. People around you will only ever see the registry, and your name on it.

Say that this doesn’t deter you. You’re going to do better, and prove to the world that you can improve. First, congratulations on keeping that spirit through your prison stay. That’s rare.

Second, let’s start with getting a job! You can’t exactly say that you’re an asset to society without a stable job, so let’s get applying! But if you’re on sex offender probation or parole, then you’re likely banned from using the internet. That’s going to make things hard. But it’s cool, a few jobs still post physical want ads. Options will be limited, but you can just apply to the first thing you find. You don’t have a choice anyway: unemployment is a felony violation that can land you back in jail.

Good news, though: a local bank is hiring! You go to the bank and ask to apply, but the teller directs you to their website. You explain that you can’t use the internet because of your felony. The teller’s expression shifts. “I’m sorry, we can’t help you,” the teller says while turning you away. Yeah, that’s rough: it turns out that 92% of US employers operate criminal background checks, and most aren’t keen on hiring felons.

But chin up: it may be hard for you to find work while on the registry, but at least you’re not alone. It’s estimated there are more than 65 million work-eligible people with a criminal history, and thanks to these practices they all struggle to find work.

Never mind that, though, you still need a place to live, unless you want your registered address to be a street corner like an increasing number of offenders throughout the US. Depending on your state, homelessness may be a violation, so let’s find a home! Usually, apartments are faster and easier, but not for you! You have a felony, and most apartments have similar criminal policies to employers, so that’s out. Guess you’ll have to buy a house.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a house for sale that’s not in an exclusion zone. Remember those? It’s a state-decided restriction for sex offenders that dictates how close they can live to schools, parks, libraries, and they can be a distance restriction anywhere from 200ft – 2,500ft. The idea behind these zones was to keep sex offenders away from places where children congregate, but experts agree that they don’t contribute to safety. Rather, in states like Florida, where exclusion zones see the largest distance restrictions, these zones make community reintegration and offender rehabilitation impossible. Despite this, many states still employ these zones.

Bad news: all available homes are in exclusion zones, so you can’t live there, and since many homeless shelters also exclude sex offenders, it looks like you’ll be on a park bench for a while. Sorry. Anything else would be illegal. But hey, it isn’t all bad for you: as a homeless sex offender, it’s nearly impossible for the police to track you, even with your street corner listed on the registry! That said, your chances at rehabilitation aren’t looking good.

I mean, without a job or a place to stay, how can you afford mandatory sex offender therapy? Oh yeah, that’s right. You have to pay for your court-assigned therapy. Oh, and you also have to pay for the registry… and probation. With all the different requirements for SO management, it’s hard to nail down an average, but analysts believe that most sex offenders will pay around $10,000 per year for probation and treatment.

This is a bit of a problem, especially when 66% of people on probation make less than $20,000 per year. Having to pay $10,000 on probation and treatment before living costs on a $20,000 salary means you’re not going to be doing much living. What’s worse is failure to pay for probation or treatment is a felony violation. You’d be breaking the law by being poor. But you can’t get a job. You can’t even get a home. What’s left? Crime? No, you’re trying to be better.

But if you don’t pay, that’s also a crime. I guess you’re a criminal no matter what you do. But hey, you’re not alone. You’re in the same situation as 900,000 other people. Too bad you can’t talk to them; that’s a felony too.

Luckily, you’re not a sex offender. If you were, you wouldn’t even have the power to change this.

But you do! So keep reading.

Sex Offender Therapy

We’ve spent a lot of time so far looking at the Sex Offender Registry and why it’s counter-productive at solving sex abuse. But that’s just half of the equation. Let’s stop and look at the other half: Sex Offender Therapy.

Sex Offender Therapy, while relatively new (first formal model utilized in 1990), is a mandatory factor for most sex offenders in the US. While problems exist with SOT that contribute to recidivism, it may well also be an answer – with the right practice and application, that is.

Going back to the US in the 1980’s, it was widely believed offenders were just bad people with intentional bad behaviour; rather than persons in need of behavioural conditioning. Therapy was not available in the US at that time, and prison was the only treatment – and as we saw in the previous facts, prison isn’t the answer for behavioural matters.

Luckily, at the same time doctors in Canada had a breakthrough. They called it “Risk Needs Responsivity” sex offender therapy. This model focuses on 3 principles of care when addressing sexual behaviour:

  1. Risk: Matching the intensity of care in regards to the offenders risk of reoffending.
  2. Need: Assess what the offender requires for behavioural improvement.
  3. Responsivity: Provide treatment in response to the factors presented by the risk and need principle.

In short, this model aims to review and correct offensive behaviour through targeted means that are specific to the offender. In theory this sounds pretty good, but what about in practice?

A 2002 study outlined in “Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment” showed favorable, although slim, results with recidivism decreasing 7.4% for treated individuals. This was down from the 17.3% recidivism rate at the time of study. By the time of this publication, RNR was already seeing limited use in the US, but the promising results led to adoption of the program throughout the US by the late 2000’s. For the first time, the US had a potential solution to its sex crime problem. Thanks, Canada!

Notice that I said “potential” solution, though? This is because the science to this therapy-  while good in theory – is both new and there weren’t many “how-to” guides when it was adopted in the US. This left much open to interpretation.

Remember how I said that the US up until this point just assumed that offenders were intentionally bad people? Well think about what happens when that thought bleeds into these principles of RNR. Let’s look at them now:

  1. Risk: Subject is an evil predator that will strike again if allowed.
  2. Need: Subject needs to understand they are evil.
  3. Responsivity: Drastic measures to enforce to the subject they are bad and forceful sex aversion techniques.

If that treatment outline made you think “A Clockwork Orange”, then you’re not too far off from the reality.

For much of the US, this is how RNR sex offender therapy was implemented, and many places still employ this model today. Recall how after the treatment in “A Clockwork Orange,” Alex, the main character, was rendered gravely nauseous whenever he was presented with a risqué situation? Well that’s the intent behind some versions of RNR therapy in the US. Almost all versions of RNR SOT in the US rely on polygraph and penile plethysmography to ensure that the offender is being truthful about problem attraction.

These methods, however, receive large amounts of scrutiny. Scrutiny is varied, but it mostly boils down to the fact that accuracy reports of either test ignore critical variables and lack proper controls for scientific review. The polygraph, in fact, was proven unreliable in this regard.

Okay, sure, but what does this have to do with “A Clockwork Orange?” This is just the first part. The polygraph and PPG are (poorly) employed to attempt to measure offender risk and need.

Enter aversion therapy.

Image result for clockwork orange therapy
You’ll have to bear with us for a while.

LGBTQ readers will be familiar with this term as aversion therapy is so commonly associated with “Gay” Conversion Therapy, and while yes, there are parallels, let’s first review aversion therapy.

Aversion therapy is an attempt to psychologically associate bad behaviour with negative stimuli such as pain (electro-shock) or discomfort/nausea (ammonia therapy), so if an offender thinks to reoffending, the impulse is replaced with painful thoughts.

Does it work? Debatable. In trials with cigarette smokers, voluntary participants in aversion therapy saw a 50% decrease in smoking habits. However, drug addiction and sexual attraction are very different. Today, aside from an interesting work of fiction, there exists no conclusive evidence that aversion therapy has any effect on sexual behaviour. Ironically, conversion therapy helped show this, as many participants were not “cured.”

Even if these methods did work, there are other inherent problems with their use. The most prominent is aversion therapy used on wrongfully convicted persons and LGBTQ. This is made dangerous by factors accredited to success. Risk score is used to decide the intensity of aversion required, and just having a conviction (even by plea bargain) is enough to give you a risk score. Being LGBTQ arbitrarily adds to that risk score.

The problem? You aren’t actually a risk, but aversion therapy is only considered a success if your risk score goes down. But how can you lower that score if the risk is arbitrary? You can’t. This very real scenario is a nightmare for the wrongly convicted and it means that LGBTQ persons can be legally mandated to attend a form of conversion therapy, even in states where conversion therapy has been outlawed. Despite all of this, aversion therapy is still a go-to for RNR sex offender therapy in the US.

Why Is It Like This?

How did a system that’s supposed to keep people safe end up like this?

What if it was never designed to keep us safe? Let’s rewind the clock.

To put the Sex Offenders Registry and its perversion into perspective, think about the War On Drugs. In 1971, President Nixon enacted a policy that promised to eradicate the drug abuse problem in the US. Sounds noble, right?

Well, there’s a few problems.

  1. The drug abuse problem in the US was blown out of proportion.
  2. The War on Drugs was largely ineffective.
  3. It established mandatory prison sentencing.
  4. It disproportionately targeted minorities.
  5. It cost taxpayers a trillion dollars.

The War on Drugs was convincing propaganda used to sell the Criminal Justice System in the problematic, authoritarian state we know it today. Keep this in mind as we explore the next best propaganda since the War on Drugs: the Sex Offender Registry, circa 1994.

In 1994, right about the time national enchantment with the War on Drugs was wearing off, the Federal Government, searching for a new way to justify the current state of the Criminal Justice System, introduced the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act“; spearheaded by Joe Biden.

In the VCCLEA, among many other items of concern, were rules that allowed states to register “Sexually Violent Predators” and identified many new crimes from previously lawful actions. The 1994 VCCLEA was the first law to allow registry of 10 years for anyone convicted of a sex crime, and life for anyone convicted of a violent sex crime, but the registry would not be publicly accessible.

Fast forward to 1996. Since the VCCLEA did not mandate offender registry, many states did not participate in the practice. Megan’s Law, enacted in 1996, changed that by amending the VCCLEA to make public notification and registration mandatory.

Megan’s Law marked an opinion by congress that the VCCLEA was not harsh enough in its sex offender policy, citing a single, isolated case of a registered offender who raped and murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, arguing (poorly) that had Megan’s family known the offender lived nearby, this would not have happened. Neither the bill or the argument granted consideration to actual reoffending and recidivism rates.

The 1996-1998 period saw the Sex Offender Tracking and ID Act, the Dept. of Commerce, Justice, and State Appropriations Act, and Protection of Children From Sexual Predators Act, which created the National Sex Offender Registry and compelled state compliance. By 2000, the SOR was implemented Nationally across the US, with states forced to comply with federal reporting standards. However, states to could still make their own laws regarding who is required to register.

“Tough, but fair, right? I mean, all of these laws were named after children, so clearly protecting children is the goal.”

That would be nice, but the federal gov’t had a different agenda. Along comes the infamous Walsh Act. The Adam Walsh Act – better known as SORNA or Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act – essentially rewrote all the previous rules regarding the SOR, leaving out most of what would’ve been considered fair or reasonable.

SORNA is a massive bill, but here a few key changes:

  • Made state SOR mandatory for anyone convicted of a sex crime.
  • Allowed retroactive registration for prior sex offences.
  • Requires offenders to provide more info to the registry.
  • Incorporates DNA registration (blood on record) and GPS tracking for offenders.
  • Set and increased mandatory sentencing for sex crimes (sound familiar?)
  • Changed many definitions to redefine acts like public nudity, as sex crimes.

But what was the result? Surely with all these provisions, kids are safer now, right? Well, no. We’ve already seen the opposite.

Okay fine, so Sex Offender Registry laws are a disaster… but did they accomplish anything? Absolutely. They did exactly as intended; They scared you, the taxpayer, into shelling out for more police, and fewer restrictions on law enforcement:

  • VCCLEA mandated 100,000 new police officers, and also appropriated $9.7 billion for prisons, $6.1 billion for local law enforcement and $2.6 billion for the FBI, DEA, and INS.
  • SORNA authorised annual funding of state criminal justice agencies at $10 million per state per year (that’s $500 million, or half a billion) for 3 fiscal years.

In conclusion, so long as there’s a “boogeyman”, and taxpayers are gullible enough to pay, the government will keep selling programs to quietly fund police abuse under the guise of public safety. The Sex Offender Registry is the new War on Drugs.

But Does It Work?

Say you don’t care that the Sex Offender Registry allows for widespread abuse of minorities and is used to justify an increasingly intrusive and militarised police state. You only care about one thing:

Does it work?

Well… define “work.”

Today, the Sex Offender Registry exists as an unquestioned (behind-the-curtain) staple of the Criminal Justice System. There are at least 721,382 people publicly registered on the SOR (the actual total is believed to be in excess of 900,000). But is this accurate? Are all these people dangerous?

Hardly. It’s just an effective minority profiling tool, with incentive for excessive use. We’ve already seen that children make up 25% of the registry, that people of colour make up a disproportionate 33%+, that LGBTQ people aren’t afforded equal protections from sex crime charges and that SORNA turns harmless acts such as public urination into sex crimes. So no, the registry is not accurate. Many on the registry are not dangerous predators.

Okay, so the SOR is inaccurate and has questionable intentions, but does it reduce crime?

Again: not really. The SOR may actually provoke new crimes and increase the overall crime rate, analysts believe. Let’s look at the numbers.

First let’s examine the number of sexually violent crimes in the post-SORNA United States. In 2009 (the last year of SORNA state funding) the Bureau of Justice Stats reported 125,910 cases of sexual assault, or roughly 1 per every 2k people. So, then, if the SOR reduces sex crime, we should see the same or lower numbers after a few years. Well, in 2016, the BJS reported 298,410 cases of sexual assault, roughly 2.2 cases per every 2k people and double the rate of 2009.

“The sex crime rate doubled after the present SOR was implemented? But what about general crime? Surely having criminals on a public registry reduces regular crime… right?”

Would you be surprised if I said “no?”

A 2012 study by the University of Michigan titled, “Do Sex Offender Registries Make Us Less Safe?” concluded that while non-registered offenders are deterred from crime, the recidivism rate for registered offenders was higher.

We also demonstrate that notification laws may affect sex offence frequency, albeit not necessarily as lawmakers intended. We estimate that notification laws reduce the number of sex offences when the size of the registry is small but that these benefits dissipate as more offenders become subject to notification requirements. This pattern is consistent with notification deterring nonregistered individuals but encouraging recidivism among registered offenders, perhaps because of the social and financial costs associated with the public release of their criminal history and personal information. When a registry is of average size, adding a notification regime effectively increases the number of sex offenses by more than 1.57 percent.

This was after a 2010 study by the Medical University of South Carolina had already concluded that not only were registered offenders not less likely to recidivate than unregistered offenders, but also that Failure-To-Register had no significant correlation with recidivism, meaning that a registrant’s refusal to participate with the SOR had no bearing on that person’s risk of recidivism.

With respect to failure to register (FTR) as a sex offender, no significant differences were found between the sexual recidivism rates of registered offenders with FTR charges and those without FTR charges (11% vs. 9%, respectively). There was no significant difference in the proportion of sexual recidivists and nonrecidivists with registration violations (12% and 10%, respectively). Failure to register did not predict sexual recidivism, and survival analyses revealed no significant difference in time to recidivism when comparing those who failed to register (M = 2.9 years) with compliant registrants (M = 2.8 years).

So no, the SOR does not reduce general crime, either.

“Well even if the SOR isn’t accurate and doesn’t do anything to prevent crime, I can still feel good about criminals paying money back into society.”

I guess you could, if the SOR didn’t cost more to operate than it makes. There was a time when Sex Offender Notification Acts diverted billons to the states (1994-2006). But it turns out that SORNA (2006) messed this up, too, and state compliance with SORNA can cost a fortune that the taxpayer has to cover.

In fact, the state of Virginia found that “the first year of implementing SORNA would cost the Commonwealth of Virginia $12,497,000” and more than $8,000,000 each year after that – and this is just for SOR compliance alone! In general, SORNA compliance and SOR management costs so much more than the SOR makes from legal fees and grants that 33 states opted out of SORNA compliance, even in the face losing significant federal revenue.

In summary, does the SOR work for:

  • Accurate representation of threat? No.
  • Public notification of dangerous predators? No.
  • Reducing sex crime? No, sex crime doubled.
  • Reducing general crime? No.
  • Making or saving money? No.

Does the SOR actually keep us safe? Not really. Not only did it increase the crime rate, it also pulls significant resources away from local law enforcement. Does the SOR, in fact, do anything that it advertises? The data replies a resounding “no.

“So if the SOR does none of the things it claims to do, and actually poses a danger, then why do we still enforce it?”

Why indeed.

How Do We Fix It?

First we need to rip off the bandaid: Registries. Don’t. Work.

Studies, experts, analysts, and anyone who doesn’t financially benefit from the Sex Offenders Registry all agree that registries do nothing to stop crime or improve safety.

So what’s the answer? Let’s build one.

Step 1: Abolish The Registry

When the registry goes, the tools of hate, discrimination, and injustice effecting people of colour, LGBTQ folk, and children go with it. But most importantly, the road to rehab returns. With only one step, you’ve saved each and every state hundreds of thousands of dollars each year which can now fund practices that actually reduce sex crime. Removing that obstacle also made those practices many times more effective.

There are a few more obstacles in the way of safe and effective sex offender management. The good news is that abolishing the registry automatically triggers the next step.

Step 2: No More Exclusion Zones

Exclusion zones are merely a product of fear campaigning, and while there’s no evidence that they improve safety, there’s plenty to that they increase poverty and homelessness. Remember that poverty and homelessness are roads to crime-for-survival, and offenders facing these struggles are often blocked from treatment and thus are cycled endlessly through prison at your cost.

Step 3: No Prison for First-Time Offenders

Stay with me. The reason for this is threefold, and all three parts are critical to reducing crime:

  1. Sex abuse is a cognitive-behaviour issue, not a criminal one. Prison doesn’t treat cognitive-behaviour issues, and it often makes them worse.
  2. Reserving prison for repeat offenders ensures those who can be quickly and easily treated receive priority and can begin rehab immediately.
  3. Cutting prison for first-timers also removes the incentive for wrongful incarceration just to satisfy a quota or a need for cheap labour.

Instead, one-time offenders should be placed on probation as long as needed for therapy.

Step 4: Equal Protections for LGBTQ People

Cutting prison sentences helps lessen courtroom bias, but LGBTQ people are still more likely to be convicted of sex crimes thanks to exclusion in poorly defined laws. As is the current approach in California, sex crime protections like the Romeo & Juliet Laws need to be revised across the nation to include the same protections for LGBTQ relationships as they do for cis and straight relationships.

Step 5: A New, Regulated Sex Offender Therapy System

Therapy is the answer to the sex crime problem; Therapy is how you improve cognitive behaviour and prevent relapse. However, as also mentioned previously, our present Sex Offender Therapy model is rife with counter-productivity and is in dire need of revision. Luckily, the necessary parts already exist. Let’s break down SOT and see how we can make it work.

Step 5A: Replace the PPG/Polygraph with the Abel Test.

Both the PPG and Polygraph have been criticized by psychoanalysis experts as being too invasive, scientifically flawed, and of questionable accuracy; ultimately unreliable. This is where the Abel Test comes in. Invented by Dr. Gene Abel, the Abel test stands as a more-accurate alternative for risk/attraction assessment that utilizes pictures and questionnaires in place of needless physical probes.

Step 5B: Strict Regulations on Risk Scoring.

Risk review for sex offences is all over the place, and since this score is key to prescribing proper therapy and treatment, it needs to be precise and scientifically controlled. Among these risk score revisions, the following are mandatory:

  1. Risk review should rely on regulating testing for risk factors.
  2. No implied risk simply for conviction or LGBTQ status.

Step 5C: Incorporate Good Lives Model Therapy.

Many believe Good Lives Model therapy to be a replacement for the Risk Needs Responsivity model used today, but it’s not. GLM is essentially a patch for RNR to fix critical bugs. Good Lives Model first saw limited use in 2006 as a re-imagined responsivity principle in RNR Therapy that focused less on aversion and more on positive life restructuring to stop relapse and prevent future offences.

Since that time, GLM has shown promising results in reducing recidivism and turning offenders into productive members of society. However, GLM requires broader use in the US to put those results to work on sex crime reduction.

So in summary, the ideal SOT model would be:

  1. Risk: Abel Test to interpret offender’s risk to reoffend.
  2. Needs: Examine offenders current life structure, personality, education, and habits to determine what needs improvement.
  3. Responsivity: Via GLM, utilizing positive reinforcement, assist the offender in restructuring their life with education, opportunity, and conditioning according to Risk and Needs.

Step 6: Repeal SORNA

The 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act added mandatory minimums, and redefined many harmless acts like public urination as sex crimes. SORNA added significantly to mass incarceration and undeserving additions to the Sex Offender Registry that plague the system today, while also making compliance so expensive for tax payers that 33 states opted out. Not only would repealing SORNA reduce the number of wrongful convictions, it would free up safety, police, and treatment resources to better manage and treat the actual sex crime problem.

Conclusion

If we learn from our mistakes and reform practices by adapting to modern science and adopting proven methods, then we can cultivate a Sex Offender Management System that not only reduces crime, but is also beneficial and safe for all.

One thought on “The Sex Offender Registry Doesn’t Work

  1. This is the single best explanation of, and argument for, getting rid of the registry. I took three different risk assessments following my non-contact offense in early 2014, one in California and two in Maine. All three determined I was of the lowest possible risk of recidivism. What kind of risk am I labeled in Maine? Moderate. Why? Because there is no Low. It’s like when you go to the movie theater and medium is the smallest size drink. Despite scoring what the average non-offender on the street would score, I’m still labeled a moderate risk.
    Sadly, it’s a political slam dunk for police and elected officials. Who is going to go on record as saying the registry is a bad thing? Despite being completely ineffective, it sends the message that they are tough on sex offenders. It’s the witch trial/Scarlett Letter of our time. The only way I see things changing is when there are finally so many people added to the registry that from a bureaucratic and administrative standpoint, they need to ease some of the restrictions. I guarantee when that happens, it will also happen very quietly.

    Like

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