Form Over Function: Why Current Sex Offender Registries Have No Practical Value


Crimes against children always incite grave public concern giving lawmakers, courts, and special interest groups their seal of approval for robust sex offender registration laws. Specifically, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (“Adam Walsh Act”), which called for the establishment of a national system of registration for sex offenders. In practice, sex offender registration and notification systems create more harm than good and do not meaningfully address how to decrease the number of sex crimes committed against children.

Current laws require convicted sex offenders to register with the police in their place of residence and to notify the police of any change of address. These ordinances also prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within certain distances of schools, daycare centers and other places where children “congregate.” Offenses that trigger registration are rape, sodomy, child pornography, and sexual abuse, including incest. A few states require registration for minor offenses such as adultery in Arizona, bigamy in Louisiana, and voyeurism in Ohio.

Sex offender registry is one of the worst policies in this country. Mental health professionals largely advocate that registration is inadequate because it does not decrease the rates of sexual abuse of children. The statistics back up these claims: A U.S. Justice Department report in 2003 tracked 9,691 sex offenders released from prisons in New York, California, Ohio and 12 other large states since 1994. Their recidivism rate for new sex arrests and convictions after three years on parole was 5.3%.

There is a laundry list of shortcomings with regard to registration laws other than the ones mentioned above. First, these edicts are not going to keep children safe according to a 2007 study conducted by the Human Rights Watch that found 90% of sex crimes against children are perpetrated by family members or individuals whom the victim knows. Second, the registries are exorbitantly expensive to maintain. By 2030, the estimated cost for law enforcement to monitor registered sex offenders in California is expected to balloon to $54 million. Third, registries disseminate inaccurate information. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on January 3, 2002 that as much as one-third of the information on California’s registration website might be inaccurate. Fourth, required registration relegates many registrants to homelessness. The Impact of Residency Restrictions on Sex Offenders and Correctional Management Practices, authored by the California Research Bureau, revealed that many of the restrictions force offenders to become homeless – making registration impossible – because they cannot find anywhere to live. 

In sum, there is little evidence to support the efficacy of sex offender registries in their current form. Rates of sex offense do not decline after the introduction of a registry, nor do sex offenders appear to recidivate less when registries are in place. Now that we have defined the problem, what are the potential solutions? Read Part II titled “Sex Offender Registries: How To Reform Good Laws Gone Bad,” for some insight.