The Folly of America’s Sex Offender Registries

The Folly of America’s Sex Offender Registries


In 2006, a pedophile-hunting gunman shot 24-year old William Elliot after he found William’s name on Maine’s online sex-offender registry. As William’s mom told Human Rights Watch, “Without the registry, he would still be alive today.” How did Elliot end up on the registry?  When he was 19, he had sex with his girlfriend three weeks before she turned 16, the age of consent in Maine. Sadly, William is not the only victim of this kind of violence. In the last decade, there were at least half a dozen documented vigilante murders of registered sex offenders and likely hundreds more cases of assault.

Publically available sex offender registries were never grounded in criminological evidence; instead, they emerged from knee-jerk reactions to well-reported tragedies of child rape and murder. Since their inception, little evidence has validated the efficacy of sex offender registries. Indeed, a 2011 study in the Journal of Law and Economics observed that states which require registry of sex offenders had slightly higher rates of recidivism among sex offenders and no lower rates of sex crime. On average, sex offender registry laws may increase the overall number of sex crimes by preventing the reintegration of sex offenders into society.

To be sure, these laws have ostracized sex offenders in a variety of ways. One 2005 study found that half of registered sex offenders said they had been harassed and 16% said they had been assaulted because their status was known to the public. Sex offenders frequently cannot find jobs or stable housing because employers and landlords refuse to be associated with them. Many family members of sex offenders report that they have lost friends or suffered from discrimination due to laws which automatically notify nearby residents of the presence of sex offenders. At least 38 states put restrictions on where offenders can live; one consequence this is that many former offenders end up homeless. In California, a state report documented a 750 percent increase in the number of homeless sex offenders following the implementation of residency restrictions.

Sex offender registries also impose unintended harms on the children of sex offenders (who, of course, have committed no crime at all). A 2009 study in the American Journal of Criminal Justice noted that the children of registered sex offenders suffered from pervasive stigmatization due to their parent’s sex offender status; the harassment, ridicule, and isolation these children received from their peers due to their parent’s status resulted in them having elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. Hence, the existence of publically available sex offender registries—created pretty much for the sake of protecting children—is actually harming thousands of innocent kids by punishing them for acts they had nothing to do with.

Moreover, in many states, the sorts of menacing crime it takes to become branded as sex offender (for life in California and three other states) can include things like public urination, flashing, or consensual sex between a seventeen year old and a fifteen year old. Even teen sexting, which is considered possession of child pornography even if the possessor is a minor with a picture of a significant other, has resulted in teens ending up on a sex offender registry. Since many states bar registered sex offenders from being within a certain distance of schools, this has had the nonsensical result that teens physically cannot attend school. In almost every state, being on a sex offender registry for teenage sexting is nearly indistinguishable from being on the registry for child molestation.

Fear is a powerful and important driver of human behavior. However, fear can result in misguided policies that exacerbate the problems they were crafted to solve. Public sex offender registries in their current form embody a clear triumph of fear mongering over sound judgment. America could do with their abolition.

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About author

Michael Zoorob

Michael Zoorob is a senior from Brentwood, Tennessee, majoring in political science and economics. Zoorob’s interest in politics grew out of an interest in news and world events that began at a young age. Though intrigued by all forms of politics, Zoorob is particularly interested in international relations, drug policy, and the politics of stigmatization. Previously Online Director, he is currently the President of VPR and writes the column, "The Politics of Fear."

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  • nicole#24

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    I wish more people would realize what this awful registry is doing to peoples lives.

    It’s time to change it!

  • Carson Cresly#27

    April 6, 2013

    A few years back there was a case in my country where a drunk 19 year old mooned (from a distance) some kids at a parking lot. He’s now a registered sex offender.

    I guess they think that the sight of a 19 year-old’s backside is capable of causing lifelong psychic trauma in children…..

  • will#28

    January 10, 2013

    SPOT ON! Problem is, you could go back and read the same articles 10 yrs ago. Nothing ever happens to eradicate this travesty

  • oncefallendotcom#29

    October 2, 2012

    Here is the result of the registry. This video is a grieving widow of a man murdered for being on the list. His crime? Being a teen who had consensual relations with another teen.

  • Edie Billings#30

    September 26, 2012

    Kudos and much appreciation to Mr. Zoorob for joining the increasing outcry against the sex-offender registry.

    This is an ill-conceived system that has gone awry and the pain and collateral damage far outweigh any good that is is supposed to do.

    There is much research to support this fact.

    Time for a change.

  • Edie Billings#31

    September 26, 2012

    Kudos and much appreciation to Mr.Zoorob for joining the increasing outcry against the sex-offender registry.

    This is an ill-conceived system that has gone awry and must be reformed.

    The collateral damage and pain that this system causes far outweigh any good that it is supposed to do.

    It’s time for change.

  • Solange#32

    September 24, 2012

    Recently, I read an article about a local politician who was talking about the sex offender registry. He said he supported it because parents have a “right” to know who is living next to them. Well, apparently they have a “right” to know if a sex offender who peed in the park is living next to them because he is on the registry, but not a convicted murderer or thief who has served their time and is out of jail because they are not on a registry. Crazy!

    I am certainly not advocating for any new registries. Quite the opposite. The public sex offender registry needs to go. There is nothing good about it.

    Also, where in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights does it say that “parents have the right to know if a sex offender is living next to them”?

    I think our Legislator must have flunked Civics 101.

  • lifegonewrong#33

    September 24, 2012

    I had been apart of society working, starting business, raising my families; my kids have gone to the same schools, never seen as different.
    I have attended PTA meeting, open house and attended teachers meeting. I have been able to express my concerns about my kids education because I was allowed to participate in school actives, I was able to become apart of their life’s while they attended school. I saw this as building a bond between kids, parent, teacher and schools.
    The school is the second home for kids, parents participation is very important for the schools to be able to function as the building block of our kid’s life. I know this because I have three kids that are 34, 24 and 12 years of age.
    The first two had not known much of my past, my past had no part of our lives, and the people that had been my friends did not know any thing about my past. All my new friends had never know any one like me and I was not about to tell them, they would not understand seeing none of them have never even thought about committing a crime.
    The church I was a part of, talked about how criminals could change, if Jesus touched their life’s though none of them ever meet one, I did not want to be the one the knew. I did not want my kids to know me as a criminal; I wanted them to have a normal life. The normal life we lived helped them to become successfully as they both have been able to finished college.
    My 12 year is having other kids hang my picture up at school and causing him to hate school and me as a parent because we are no longer part of society or part of the school. I cannot express my concern about his education or allowed to participate in school actives or allowing me to became apart of his life while he attends school.
    I have no bound between him, other parents, teacher or his school. The school is not a second home for him because I as a parent am not allowed to participate with the school so it can became a function building block in my son’s life.
    For me the registry never caused me or my family any problems for the past 30 years, as this is true for others. The registry was set up so the police could keep an eye out and watch those on the registry more closely this I do not feel is bad.
    Its the info given to the public that has made this a problem. The problem is that my picture is being shown 30 years after the crime has happen as the Police is continuity allowed to show a newer picture of me each year, that makes me guilty of the same crime over and over no matter how many years ago it was.
    This new registry is causing people to become homeless because they are not able to work and other of us to lose employment putting us equal to those just getting out of jail. If we who have been LAW ABIDING CITENZEN FOR YEARS ARE BECAMING HOMELESS WHAT IS TO BECOME OF THOSE THAT WILL NEVER HAVE A CHANCE TO CHANGE

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  • Arianna Wolfgang#35

    September 24, 2012

    This article is spot-on


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