Sex Offender Registration: Is It Effective?

originally posted 5/2012


This is not a Tale as such but a research paper written by a young woman who wanted to share it with those whom it affects. She retains all right of ownership and copyright.

Sex Offender Registration: Is it Effective?

Sex offender registration began with the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (1994), which required each state to create their own specific program by which those who have been convicted of crimes against children or sexually violent offenses will be registered. Megan’s Law (1996), an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act, additionally required community notification of known offenders. Those states which do not comply with either the Jacob Wetterling Act or Megan’s Law are penalized with a reduction of the amount of federal crime control grant money they receive (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2007, p. 36). The sex offender registration laws have continued to evolve over time, with the continued passage of other acts and laws, including the Pam Lyncher Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act (1996), the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act (1997), the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act (2000), and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006) (Stevens, 2012). The purpose of sex offender laws is, presumably, the safety of children and the community. Law enforcement agencies lead the general public to believe that, if sexual offenders are required to register, they will be less likely to offend another person in the future. In addition, the general public appears to have a higher perception of safety in knowing who the registered sexual offenders are in their communities. Unfortunately, harm reduction and reduced recidivism may actually not be the end result of sexual offender registration programs.

My first premise addresses what I believe to be the misconception of safety. When citizens check the sex offender registry online (, they only see those offenders who have been convicted. This serves to reinforce a false sense of security since those who might have accepted a plea to another charge and/or those members of society who could potentially commit a sexual crime, but have not yet done so, are not on the registry. I can personally attest to this fact, since none of the incidences of my own childhood sexual abuse was ever reported, leaving my abusers, who were family members, free to commit other offenses. Contrary to popular belief, it is estimated that up to 90% of those who abduct or sexually violate children are either a family member or acquaintance (Ashmore, 2009). Even if there is truth to the belief that one should fear such strangers, the ever-increasing number of registrants is continually becoming difficult for law enforcement officials to track. Particularly due to residency restrictions, many are forced into homelessness or simply adopt a transient lifestyle to avoid registration (HRW, 2007, p. 9). Therefore, it is my opinion that basing one’s perception of safety solely on sex offender registries commits the fallacy of wishful thinking, as these highly publicized non-comprehensive registries encourage the general public to fear strangers more than those who might actually pose a threat to them or their families.

My second premise challenges the idea that sex offender registration laws reduce the recidivism rate for those violators who have fulfilled the punitive obligations from their previous offense(s). Patty Wetterling, a child safety advocate and mother of Jacob Wetterling (for whom the 1994 Act is named), is quoted as saying, “I based my support of broad-based community notification laws on my assumption that sex offenders have the highest recidivism rates of any criminal. But the high recidivism rates I assumed to be true do not exist. It has made me rethink the value of broad-based community notification laws, which operate on the assumption that most sex offenders are high-risk dangers to the community they are released into” (HRW, 2007, p. 4). Lawmakers would like for the general public to believe that most sex crimes are committed by those who have previously been convicted of sexual offenses, while rarely ever being asked to provide the sources of their information. In reality, it is estimated that first-time offenders account for 87% of those arrested for sex crimes (HRW, 2007, p. 25). Furthermore, there are many different offenses, represented by varying recidivism rates, which fall under the umbrella of “sex offender”, including acts such as public urination, consensual sex between teenagers, mooning, streaking, rapists, child molesters, and those child molesters who specifically molest boys. The latter group of offenders, the men who molest boys, carry a much higher recidivism rate (1 out of every 3) for sexual offenses than any of the other categories (HRW, 2007, p. 27), thus increasing the recidivism rate overall. Some recent studies have shown that recidivism of sex offenders can be reduced by approximately 41% with contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy (HRW, 2007, p. 34). In my opinion, crime control funding would achieve greater results if it was spent on rehabilitation rather than on futile attempts to keep track of the numerous registrants, many of which do not even pose a threat to society.

The third premise addressed in this paper is the effect of stigmatization. Goffman’s labeling theory states that once an individual has had a deviant label assigned to him, he will begin to view himself as such and continue to perform deviant actions. Those who receive an extremely stigmatizing label find it is easier to act in accordance with the label than to act in a way which attempts to prove they have been reformed (Thio, 2010). According to Edwin Lemert (1951), the first deviant act is the primary deviation, the continued action is the secondary deviation, and the acceptance of the label, leading to a lifestyle of deviance, is tertiary deviance. Those who bear negative labels will suffer the effects of stigmatization, including ridicule, assault, humiliation, harassment, imprisonment, dehumanization, and inability to find adequate housing and/or employment. Having stated this, with the sex offender registration and notification laws currently in place, I think it is fair to question where the incentive is for the offender to change. One of the major factors in reducing recidivism is societal reintegration, which is made nearly impossible by the stigmatization of those placed on sex offender registries.

While it is true that law enforcement agencies should be alerted to those who may potentially commit violent sexual acts, we should be careful to avoid committing the fallacy of the continuum in assuming that all who are required to register as sex offenders are dangerous individuals. In recent years, politicians are using the appeal to common opinion (bandwagon) in pushing for increasingly stricter, more stigmatizing laws, as well as employing the appeal to fear, leading the general public to believe that all who have committed what is classified as a sexual offense are dangerous individuals and should be labeled as such.

In conclusion, the sex offender registration and notification requirements are, in my opinion, counterproductive. The restrictions and stigmatization imposed on those who are required to register strongly discourage societal reintegration, a major factor in reducing recidivism. Furthermore, the current sex offender registration laws create a false sense of security in leading the general public to believe that only those individuals on the registry are a threat to them. In reality, most sex offenses are committed by those well-known to the victim rather than complete strangers. Education and communication is the best defense the general public has against possible sexual or violent crimes. Parents should educate their children as much as possible, while primarily relying on communication with their children to identify whether any sexual violations might be taking place. Unfortunately, the profile of the families of children who might be sexually abused is thought to be less cohesive, with more dysfunction and disorganization than the families of non-abused children (Myers, 2011). There are no simple answers, but I truly feel the sex offender registration laws will achieve results which are directly in opposition to the goals of harm reduction, community safety, and reduced recidivism.


Ashmore, M. (2009). Teaching Kids to Keep Safe.
Human Rights Watch. (2007, September). No Easy Answers.
Myers, J. E. (Ed.). (2011). Sexual Behavior. Child Maltreatment (3rd ed., p. 219). University of the Pacific: Sage.
Stevens, P. S. (2012). History of the Sex Offender Registry.
Thio, A. (2010). Constructionist Theories.
K. Hanson (Ed.), Deviant Behavior (10th ed., pp. 35-). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.



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