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How Useful Are Public Sex Offender Registries?

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One of the most controversial issues raised during the recent provincial election campaign here in Ontario dealt with the promise by Progressive Conservative Leader, Tim Hudak, to make the provincial sex offender registry accessible to the public. While publicly accessible sex offender registries have been available in the United States for years, the proposed policy was viewed with alarm by police forces across Ontario as well as various grassroots organizations and treatment professionals dealing with sex offenders (myself included). Dalton McGuinty's narrow victory put an end to the Hudak plan, but the issue will likely resurface in future elections.

Do public sex offender registries actually protect society from offenders? Though access to sex offender registries continue to be limited to police and correctional agencies here in Canada, the passage of Megan's Law in 1996 forced U.S. states to make specific details from sex offender registries public and the process was accelerated by the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which forced the passage of Sex Offender Registry and Notification (SORN) systems in all U.S. states and territories. The most recent statistics by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports more than 700,000 convicted sex offenders in registries across the United States. Attempts at creating a nationwide database have been stymied by how the independent state registries are operated and the wide differences in how sex offenders are treated from one state to another.

In recent years, politicians and community activists have used high-profile media cases to highlight problems in existing SORN systems and to urge more stringent safeguards in dealing with known sex offenders in the community. These calls for tightened security have hampered community-based sex offender treatment programs and often deprive offenders of the necessary community resources that might actually reduce re-offending. In many legal jurisdictions, increased restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live (i.e., establishing "safe zones" around schools and playgrounds) which have often left offenders homeless to avoid being declared in breach of supervision conditions. While Megan's Law and related legislation granted states some latitude in dealing with sex offenders, the stringent reporting guidelines laid down by the federal Adam Walsh Act has raised serious concerns by state governments, especially over the Act's failure to distinguish between sex offenders in terms of risk level.

Despite outrage over high-profile cases involving strangers abducting children, they remain relatively rare compared to the overwhelming majority of sex offenses. To identify the types of offenders who are typically found on sex offender registries, a research study by a team of researchers led by Alissa Ackerman of the University of Washington was recently published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. Using information on 445,127 registered sex offenders taken from sex offender registries across the U.S., the researchers examined arrest characteristics, demographics, victim information, and perceived risk. The offenders examined in the study were from public registers only and did not include the lowest risk offenders in some states whose information is only available to law enforcement agencies. Not surprisingly, the sex offenders in the study were overwhelmingly male (97.7 per cent) and ranged in age from 12 to 99 (although the average age was 44.8, some states allow minors to be charged as sex offenders). Only 11 per cent of registered sex offenders are currently in prison or in mental hospitals and the rest are on community supervision. In addition to offenders who are still registered despite being deported or listed in more than one community, approximately 6,923 sex offenders from 43 states are officially listed as homeless. An additional 5,349 offenders are listed as "absconded" or whose whereabouts were otherwise unknown.

While not all states provided information on victims, approximately 90 per cent had victims who were minors and one-third had victims younger than 10. In terms of victim gender, 87 per cent of all sex offenders had female victims only, with the remainder involving either male victims or both male and female. Gathering data on the specific nature of the offense was even more difficult due to differences in state laws relating to age of consent and type of criminal offense (e.g. convictions for "sodomy"). The available statistics didn't allow for distinguishing between first-time and repeat-offenders or whether violence was used in the offense. Breaking down the offenders in the study in terms of actual risk to the public was even more difficult due to differences risk definition and how that information was given in public databases. While Minnesota and Nebraska only included high-risk offenders in their databases, the other states showed a wide variation in risk level.

The researchers emphasized that their results were preliminary (further studies are planned) but the current findings indicate that registered sex offenders are an extremely diverse group and vary widely in terms of nature of offending, type of victim, and level of actual risk for re-offending. The results also raised questions about why public sex offender registries (which were intended as a means of protecting society), often includes false information on offenders who are not actually living in the state where they are registered (in some cases the same offender was listed in more than one registry). While victims' groups and politicians often invoke the specter of absconded or otherwise non-compliant sex offenders to call for tougher legislation, the study failed to support this fear.

Overall, only 17,688 registered sex offenders examined in the study were actually homeless, non-compliant, or otherwise missing from where they supposed to be registered. That number, while high, is still far short of the 100,000 figure commonly cited by media and public officials. In 2009, the U.S. Congress placed the number of missing sex offenders nationwide at 135,000 to justify a substantial increase in the U.S. Marshall Service budget despite failing to provide an actual source for the figure. At a recent meeting of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Abusers, Dr. Jill Levenson of Lynn University presented the results of a study examining sex offender registries and found consistent problems with state reporting practices that often prevented registered sex offenders from registering as required and being declared "absconded" as a result. In summarizing her findings, Dr. Levenson suggested that commonly used estimates of missing sex offenders were highly inflated and that, even in cases where sex offenders genuinely absconded, it was typically to avoid the social stigma of being a registered sex offender rather than a desire to re-offend. There were also wide variations in reporting rates across different states (eg, California and Wisconsin had the highest rates for missing or absconded sex offenders while Florida had one of the lowest).

So, how useful are public sex offender registries in protecting the public? Despite the passage of Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Act, there are still wide variations in how the legislation is applied across various U.S. states. In addition to highly publicized cases of vigilante violence directed against sex offenders, often using information collected from public registries, studies of released offenders show consistent negative consequences over being publicly identified as convicted sex offenders. As to whether public registries and community notification are actually successful in curbing recidivism, there is little available research to suggest that it makes any real difference in public safety. On the other hand, by preventing returning sex offenders from becoming reintegrated into society, public registries often do more harm than good.

Given the problems that public sex registries have caused in the United States, it's hardly surprising that Ontario police and treatment professionals dealing with sex offenders have resisted any attempt to establish something similar here in Ontario. Whether it will become an issue in future elections remains to be seen.

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