Studies question effectiveness of sex offender laws

Aug 30, 2011

Two studies in the latest issue of the Journal of Law and Economics cast doubt on whether sex offender registry and notification laws actually work as intended.

One study, by J.J. Prescott of the University of Michigan and Johan Rockoff of Columbia University, found that requiring sex offenders to register with police may significantly reduce the chances that they will re-offend. However the research also finds that making that same registry information available to the broader public may backfire, leading to higher overall rates of sex crime.

Meanwhile, another study by University of Chicago Ph.D. student Amanda Agan finds no evidence that sex offender registries are at all effective in increasing public safety.

Prescott and Rockoff—Do Sex Offender Registries and Notification Laws Deter Crime?

Using data from 15 states over more than 10 years, Prescott and Rockoff examine the evolution of sex offense rates as states passed and began to enforce their registration and notification laws. Registration laws require that sex offenders check in with and provide information to the police following their release from prison, whereas notification laws make sex offender information available to the public, often via the Internet. The researchers analyze sex offender registration and notification laws separately, which is important because the laws are designed to work in very different ways.

Prescott and Rockoff find that a registration requirement without public notification reduces reported sex crime substantially, most likely through better police monitoring and more effective apprehension of recidivists. For a state with an average-sized registry, a registration requirement reduces crime by about 13 percent from the sample mean. The drop in crime gets larger as registries grow larger, indicating that registry laws lower crime by discouraging registered offenders from re-offending, as opposed to discouraging potential first-time offenders.

In contrast, public notification laws, such as the listing of released offenders on the Internet, may actually undo some or all of a registry's crime-reducing power. While Prescott and Rockoff discover that the threat of being subjected to notification deters some potential first-time sex offenders from committing crime, released offenders appear to become more likely to do so. In fact, adding public notification to an average state's registration law leads to slightly higher levels of total reported sex crime. Taken as a whole, the research shows that while police registration discourages sex offender recidivism, public notification actually encourages it.

Why would public notification encourage sex offenders to re-offend? Perhaps because they have little else to lose. In particular, notification can make the threat of prison less effective. According to Prescott and Rockoff, their findings suggest that "convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crimes when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime-free life relatively less desirable."

J.J. Prescott and Jonah E. Rockoff, "Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?" Journal of Law and Economics 54:1

Amanda Agan—Sex Offender Registries: Fear Without Function?

Agan finds no evidence that sex offender registries are effective in increasing public safety.

Her study used three different types of analysis to test the effectiveness of sex offender laws. First, she compared arrest rates for sex crimes in each U.S. state before and after registry laws were implemented and found no appreciable changes in crime trends following the introduction of a registry.

Second, Agan tested whether registries discourage convicted offenders from re-offending. To do that, she looked at data on over 9,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994. About half of those offenders were released into states where they needed to register, while the other half did not need to register. She could then compare crime rates in the two groups.

She found little difference in the two groups' propensity to re-offend. In fact, those released into states without registration laws were slightly less likely to re-offend.

"The results show that an offender who should have had to register appears to behave no differently, or possibly worse, than on who did not have to register," she writes. "If anything, registered offenders have higher rates of recidivism."

Third, Agan looked at census blocks in Washington D.C. to see if higher numbers of sex offenders in a given block correspond to higher rates of sex crime arrests. She found that crime rates in general, and sex crimes in particular, do not vary according to the number of in the area.

The block-by-block analysis was designed to assess "the potential effectiveness of registries by considering whether where offenders live is predictive of where they offend," Agan writes.

"The results show that knowing where a sex offender lives does not reveal much about where sex crimes, or other crimes, will take place," she writes. That result calls into question the rationale for creating registries in the first place.

She concludes that sex offender registries do little to increase , "either in practice or in potential."

Amanda Y. Agan, "Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?" Journal of Law and Economics 54:1.

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User comments : 25

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dogbert
1.8 / 5 (10) Aug 30, 2011
How do the authors think we should deal with sex offenders? We already knew that registries don't deter crime. Since we won't keep them locked up, are we supposed to do nothing at all?
ozhole
4 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2011
"Prescott and Rockoff find that a registration requirement without public notification reduces reported sex crime substantially, most likely through better police monitoring and more effective apprehension of recidivists."

Perhaps you didn't read that bit dogbert?
JRDarby
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 30, 2011
Perhaps little substantial can be done.

While some may want to turn sex crimes into a question of sexual norms/morality and their enforcement (silly, in my opinion, as the expression of sexuality both in humans and other animals seems to take literally any form it possibly can) the reduction of public harm is the real issue. In that case, I think dogbert's question is legitimate. (By the way, ozhole, Agan's study nearer the end of the article stood in contrast to Prescott and Rockoff's so the question is still valid)

In my opinion, the issue is a practical one. People will offend against any sexual prohibition any law makes regardless of any factor. Again, the issue is harm. We should examine what factors *at the time of the offense* could deter the person from harming another. Public education of the personal dangers to the offender of sex crimes? (Admittedly outside risk of STIs these are few.) Broad appeals to offender's empathy? Empathy training/therapy for convicted offenders?
JRDarby
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 30, 2011
To clarify, when I said "We should examine what factors *at the time of the offense* could deter the person from harming another" I meant deter harm rather than the sex crime itself. While I have never been a party, either giving or receiving, to statutory rape I think it's safe to say that in cases where consent is fully forthcoming no harm has been done. In relation to my argument, then, we should not bother with deterring victimless crimes, but only crimes where harm results to a victim.
COCO
2 / 5 (8) Aug 31, 2011
just neuter the bastards - it is not like they are ideal genetic material for reproduction - Danish research indicates lowest recividism rates of any treatment/therapy. Everyone wins.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
Wow, COCO. Not only does castration not solve the problem (even if it results in lower rates of recidivism), the amount of false positives (i.e. people) subjected to that affront to dignity would likely be large enough to be a major problem.

Rather than flippantly promote a poor solution based on what I can only assume must be an emotional reaction I suggest you think about the issue, its causes, and solutions to those causes. Sure, you can't divorce the issue from the fact that many of these people commit the crimes out of sexual appetite. But this is not the only reason these crimes are committed.

You are doing a disservice to past and potential victims and the innocent accused caught in the crossfire by suggesting a blanket solution like castration. In biology the equivalent would be applying extremely strong antibiotics to kill one specific type of bacterium at the cost of thousands of other benign or beneficial ones.

Thanks for the one star ratings. I returned the favor.
emsquared
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
Perhaps little substantial can be done.

Take a look at, say Africa or Asia's sex crime rates (or anywhere with poor sex-crime laws/enforcement) and then ours, and then come tell me nothing can be done.
We should examine what factors *at the time of the offense* could deter the person from harming another.

What?! We've already done this, to cite your example, in the form of statutory rape law. The single factor that causes harm is that the victim is not physically and/or mentally mature enough to realize the consequences of consent. Hence our society does not give them the legal right to give consent. That's how you prevent harm here. Note I'm not here to debate the age of majority.
People will offend against any sexual prohibition any law makes regardless of any factor.

Yeah, and people will murder people no matter what, too. Let's get rid of those laws. You're an idiot.
emsquared
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
think about the issue, its causes, and solutions to those causes.

I agree castration is not an option, but follow your own advice.

The issue with sex crime is usually violation of someone's right to say no. It's cause is largely irrelevant except as that applies to the "solution", which is to say how best to prevent recidivism in the given individual, incaceration, psychological treatment, etc.

As most sex crimes are a result of pathologies, psychological treatment is probably the best chance, with incarceration (or death, yea, I'm a fan of the death penalty) for those who demonstrate an inability to understand and obey societies laws.
emsquared
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
Sorry for the ad hominem, but what your saying is tantamount to saying that we should not prosecute someone for attempted murder or conspiracy to murder. No harm, no foul right? You need to re-evaluate your argument.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
"Take a look at, say Africa or Asia's sex crime rates (or anywhere with poor sex-crime laws/enforcement) and then ours, and then come tell me nothing can be done."

Do you want to compare apples to apples or apples to oranges? Sex crimes in Africa (for example, virgin rape) occur for cultural reasons rather than reasons you could say were universal across cultures. Furthermore, law enforcement *in general* is extremely different between these different places. You can't point to specific enforcement of sex crime laws without acknowledging that enforcement itself is more effective regardless of the type of crime in the West than in some parts of Africa or Asia.

"The single factor that causes harm is that the victim is not physically and/or mentally mature enough to realize the consequences of consent. Hence our society does not give them the legal right to give consent."

No, the "victim" is not a victim at all if no harm is done. Continued.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
To say that a minor having sex with an adult is *necessarily* harmful is completely ludicrous. Besides, minor and adult are both arbitrary legal terms. These have no basis in scientific study and exist merely as an extension of legislators' own biases. The APA may argue that "children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults" but they also considered homosexuality a DSM disorder not long at all ago.

I contend that sexual abuse is distinct from adult-minor sexual interaction in the same way a person being penetrated by a horse is distinct from raping the horse. If the horse becomes erect, mounts the person of its own will, and no actual abuse is done to the horse, then quite simply no abuse is done to the horse (just keep it out of MY anus, knowwhatimean?) and this is completely different than a person penetrating the horse.

Continued.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
"'People will offend against any sexual prohibition any law makes regardless of any factor.'

Yeah, and people will murder people no matter what, too. Let's get rid of those laws. You're an idiot."

Way to go, straw man (and you completely misinterpreted what I was saying too). I never made an argument for eliminating laws against sexual abuse or even against sex crimes in general. I merely posed the fact that people will commit what we determine to be a crime regardless of ANY law we put forth. This statement was meant to convey that we must be mindful of PRACTICALITY before idealism when deciding solutions to the problems we find.

"The issue with sex crime is usually violation of someone's right to say no."

And how exactly do age of consent laws help the situation? If consent is given, it's not a crime. In fact, the application of age of consent laws legally LIMITS the application of one's consent and prevents, by default, what you seem to pose as a moral or acceptable situation.
JRDarby
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 31, 2011
"As most sex crimes are a result of pathologies"

Do you mean a pathology on the part of the criminal/abuser? In any case, you've just made an argument for the same solutions I posed in my original post. You suggested they receive psychological treatment just like I did. The difference, however, is that I found a distinct basis for my claim (i.e. offender commits harm, harm only committed when offender has no care or insufficient for the offended, thus institute empathy training) whereas you threw out a general solution of "psychological treatment."

The entire point of my first post was to say that we need SPECIFIC solutions to the problem, and that these specific solutions can only arise when we examine specific factors involved in the perpetration of sex crimes.

Concurrently, we should reevaluate the basis of many of our sex crime laws. Why waste resources prosecuting victimless crimes? Crimes that have no basis in reality (e.g. most age of consent laws)? Answer that if you can.
JRDarby
3 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
By the way, for your benefit in understanding what I mean, I think you could sum up my argument in two parts:
1. Sex and its expression should not be, for any reason, subject to legislation...
2. ... UNLESS harm results (or was intended) to any party.

Even more briefly, there is never a crime in sex unless actual harm to a party results or was intended.

I'll add "or was intended." You were right about the intent part.
emsquared
2 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
Sex crimes in Africa ... occur for cultural reasons

Better call the 100s of women getting raped right now, everyday by al shebab and let them know it's for their culture.
law enforcement *in general* is extremely different between these different places

Exactly. So obviously something substantial can be done. We can have and enforce laws
No, the "victim" is not a victim at all if no harm is done.

Not according to the law, but let's say you're right. The sticker here still being that you don't know if "harm" will be done until the act has already been committed. Is that reason to remove the protection? Not in the least.
To say that a minor having sex with an adult is *necessarily* harmful is completely ludicrous.

Depends on your definition of harm. I would say it is harmful to expose that minor to just the /risk/ of unintended consequences (and so does the law), you apparently think there's no harm til physical or psychological trauma manifests.

TBC
emsquared
3.5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
Sure am glad the law sees it my way.
minor and adult are both arbitrary legal terms

Yeah, and so are 90% of legal "boundaries". You going to say they all have no legitimate ground?
Way to go, straw man

Dude, you're saying that no crime is committed until harm is done, that's just not true. Ever heard of negligence? Just because no actual harm resulted doesn't mean a law designed to protect an aspect of society wasn't violated. What is so hard for you to accept about that?
This statement was meant to convey that we must be mindful of PRACTICALITY before idealism when deciding solutions to the problems we find.[\q]What isn't practical about protecting a child from the risk of harm?
And how exactly do age of consent laws help the situation?
It let's people know that you are putting physically and mentally immature people at (great?) risk, when engaging in sexual activity with them, and that our society won't tolerate it. This isn't a complex concept.
JRDarby
4 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2011
Having read all your arguments, I'm inclined to agree on every point. I guess I hadn't really thought things through. The deterrent aspect of the law as it exists seems fair.

My only problem is that the law still seems to act as the sword for moralists (for lack of a better word) who, drawing their authority from some ancient desert texts, want to impose their vision of "proper sexual behavior" on society. Although everything you said seems to make sense, I still intuit the moralists' insidious influence in the law. Maybe you don't agree with me that sex is decent in all its forms (barring harm to a party), but perhaps you can see where I'm coming from.
emsquared
3.5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
the application of age of consent laws legally LIMITS the application of one's consent and prevents, by default, what you seem to pose as a moral or acceptable situation

What? No. Age of consent laws state that a minor cannot legally consent, for reasons based in science (mental/physical immaturity). It determines the acceptable situation. It therefore has to set an arbitrary age, and I'm not here to argue what age is appropriate.
I found a distinct basis for my claim

No, you offered your own (incomplete) definition of harm. One that is not a protection. How is it determined if harm was done? Ask the child? Wait 10 years see if the victim develops a clinical pathology? You are offering an excuse, not a law that protects anyone.
Crimes that have no basis in reality (e.g. most age of consent laws)?

See above. Exposing a child to the /risk/ of direct harm is a crime.
emsquared
5 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
My only problem is that the law still seems to act as the sword for moralists (for lack of a better word) who, drawing their authority from some ancient desert texts, want to impose their vision of "proper sexual behavior" on society.

I totally see where you're coming from, and I am with you on the sword for moralists thing, I am a social liberal. And I do believe the law should stay out of the bedroom of adults.

And I am sorry if I got a little offensive. It's obviously a sticky subject.

Wasn't trying to belabor the topic either, just started my post before you posted your response.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
It's all good. Sometimes people need to beaten with the truth before they see it. Thanks for correcting me.
emsquared
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
I had to explain to rygg once why you cannot legislate against gay marriage or polygamy but can against pedophilia so I had some practice at this one...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2011
Again, the issue is harm. We should examine what factors *at the time of the offense* could deter the person from harming another
I think it is worthwhile to consider the cultural basis of sexual mores. History is replete with examples of efforts to either encourage people to reproduce, to colonize or to replace ruined armies; or to discourage them from reproducing. "There is a Time to embrace and a Time to refrain..." -says Ecclesiastes.

Religions are mostly designed to maximize reproduction as a tactic of aggression. This means beginning as early as possible, as frequently as possible, for as long as possible. Warren Jeffs is expert at this. The virgin Mary was most likely 13 when Visited. Fatima was -what- 6? when betrothed. "As arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of our youth..." says the OT.

But things have changed. Western culture needs to limit growth. Adolescents are now children. Except in Canada where the age of consent is still 13?
Cont
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2011
-And in African mercenary bands who will conscript anyone old enough to carry an AK47.

One can realize the extremely critical Nature of the need to modulate reproduction when considering the severity of laws used to do so. Sex not directly leading to reproduction is punished in fundamentalist cultures with the same severity as sex offenders are punished in western culture today.

Masturbation, sodomy, oral sex, possession of pornography were all felonies in the US back when the Intent was to fill it up as quickly as possible.

The point is that the need to restrict growth is so great in the world that my grandfather and Jerry lee Lewis would both be felons serving 60 yr sentences today because they married 13 year old girls. Except in Canada, which still needs some filling up.

And although this doesn't seem to make sense, one only needs to consider the consequences of unrestricted growth to understand that it does.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
I had to explain to rygg once why you cannot legislate against gay marriage or polygamy but can against pedophilia so I had some practice at this one
?? Of COURSE you can. Whenever or wherever the need or the desire has been great enough you only had to stimulate the minority of the population which is offended by these things, and then throw the pervos in jail for 60 years.

"There ARE no homosexuals in Iran." -says ahmadinijan. The bible has explicit passages for application at the Proper Time. Such as when growth is a Necessity.

The thing about sex with us tropical animals is that 1) reproduction is either the most important or the most dangerous thing we can do, and 2) any sexual behavior at all will unavoidably offend certain people.

The need to grow and to restrict growth are BOTH biological. These compulsions originate in the gut. Homosexuality certainly restricts growth by safely rechanneling the urge to merge. This is good reason to suspect that thats what it is FOR.
Jeddy_Mctedder
3 / 5 (2) Sep 04, 2011
ill say this, laws against possession of child pornography, particularly internet pornography , which is really just digital files stored on a disk. .....

is cover for the federal government to accuse people of crimes they never committed. if you think it is easy to plant drugs on a person in the street, how much easier is it to say "let me see your computer because we suspect there are files on there we would find containing pornography"

totally absurd. there are numerous government cases where pornography was found on people's computers under 'suspicious' circumstances.

i think if anything, the rule should be you have to be guilty of paying for it, and the government needs to have proof you paid.

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