< Sex Offender Registries Don't Work

Transcript

Friday, August 26, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

No crimes excite public disgust like sex crime. But according to two recent studies, the laws we create to deter sex offenders from relapsing after they serve time may be doing more harm than good. The first study looked at a law that exists in some form in every state, registry laws where sex offenders must tell local police their address.

The second study looked at notification laws – think of Megan's Law – passed in response to high profile crimes committed by sex offenders, after they've served their terms. Such laws require that not just the police but communities are informed when a convicted sex offender is in their midst.

Amanda Agan, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, worked on one of the studies I just mentioned. She found that registering with the police had no impact on whether sex offenders committed further crimes. We wondered why.

AMANDA AGAN:

One possibility is it may in some sense decrease what we would call the opportunity  cost of committing a crime. So once you’re on the registry, studies by psychologists have found that sex offenders have a harder time getting jobs, they have harder times making friends. Residency restrictions may make it hard for them to find a place to live.

They are somewhat more isolated from society, and that may make it so, you know, if they are thinking about committing a crime, the costs that we may think of –- the cost that we may lose our job, that we may lose the ties to our families -- those costs don’t exist for them anymore. They have less to lose, and that – that’s one possibility.

I mean, I would say that we don’t know very well exactly why they’re not working right now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Does that suggest that to you that we shouldn't have them?

AMANDA AGAN:

I think that’s a great question. I mean, these registries are costing millions of dollars to implement, and it looks like across several studies they've been found to be ineffective at increasing public safety.

However, we’re probably gonna be hard pressed to find a politician who's willing to support repealing these laws.

And in that case, I think we might want to think about whether we can implement different policies or procedures that may make them more effective.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Like what?

AMANDA AGAN:

They have some flexibility in how they implement the registries, so some states register people for ten years, some states  register them for fifteen, some states register them for life. Some states only put the most violent criminals on their Internet registry notifications and some states put all registered sex offenders on their Internet notification.

And, as far as I know, nobody’s looked at how these different policies can affect the effectiveness of the registries. And in that sense we may want to allow the states even more flexibility, so that if we were to keep them, we can find the optimal mix of policies so that when we implement them, they are at least somewhat effective.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Have you ever wondered why we have a registry for people convicted of sex crimes but not people convicted of homicide? Is it just that sex crimes are more icky?

AMANDA AGAN:

I think people find sex crimes to be particularly heinous, to quote Law and Order SVU.

I think also with homicide, if somebody is caught and convicted of homicide, they’re very likely to be in jail for life, whereas sex offenders are not going to jail for life. They're going to be back on the streets, and there was these large particular crimes that received a lot of national media attention that caused each of these changes  in the laws. I mean, the laws themselves are named after the children who were victims.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

For us, the interesting question is does violating the privacy of an ex-con, a convicted sex offender –

AMANDA AGAN:

Mm-hmm.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- protect society at all?

AMANDA AGAN:

It seems like, if anything, it could make things worse. So when the registries were first implemented they were only for use by police. The sex offender had to go to the local police station or some sort of local law enforcement agency and let them know where they were currently living.

With the advent of Megan’s Law, states had to start public notification about the information on the registry. Most states and, in fact, I believe now all states, handle this via the Internet, so you can go to your state’s sex offender registry website and find the addresses of all the registered sex offenders or, in particular, you can look for your own address in there and see, say, all the  sex offenders that live within a mile.

So there were definitely two policies - registration and public notification. I was looking particularly at the registration policy because I had data from the 1990s. So that was before Internet and community notification had begun.

The other study by J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff , they looked particularly at what happens to first-time registrants versus those on the registry already, once public  notification begins.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So once it was just the police who knew where they were and it seemed to have no impact on whether or not they would begin to engage in criminal behavior again. Now we’re talking about a situation in which the public has free access to the same information.

AMANDA AGAN:

Right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And what did that study find?

AMANDA AGAN:

They seemed to find a slight increase in how much they recidivated, although they did find a slight deterrent effect for first-time offenders.

But as the registry size grows, it seems like that recidivism effects swamps the first-time registrant effect. And so, we get kind of an overall increase in sex crimes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And you think it’s for the same reason that with the further incursion into their privacy they end up more and more isolated and have less and less to lose?

AMANDA AGAN:

You know, we don't have concrete evidence about that, but I think that that's gonna be part of what's going on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

All right. Thank you very much.

AMANDA AGAN:

Of course. Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Amanda Agan is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.