Expert Commentary

Sex offender laws, registries and policy questions: Research roundup

2015 selection of research exploring topics such as female offenders, juvenile offenders, the effectiveness of sex-offender registries, recidivism rates and public perceptions of sex crimes.

Plano, Texas, buffer zones (
Plano, Texas, buffer zones (

In 1994 the state of New Jersey passed “Megan’s Law,” which required sex offenders to register with local police departments after their release. After its passage, other states followed with similar legislative action. Following federal rules in 2003 that expanded the use of Amber Alerts nationwide, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 established, among other things, a “comprehensive set of minimum standards for sex offender registration and notification in the United States.” In part because not all states are yet in compliance, there is now a national website that allows searches for offenders across jurisdictions.

Since the passage of Megan’s Law, researchers have been studying the intended and unintended effects of such rules. A 2008 study conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice suggests that they’re not always as effective as advocates hoped. Some state rules, such as Jessica’s Law in California, have been overturned by the courts because they severely limited offenders’ housing options — by creating residential restrictions — and pushed many into homeless shelters. Some organizations have also argued that requiring minors who commit sex-related crimes to register as offenders is unjust and can have lifetime negative consequences.

Nevertheless, public officials continue to debate new controls on sex offenders, including banning them from public spaces such as libraries and college campuses. Some governments are also taking steps to increase penalties for teachers who have inappropriate sexual relations with students.

In part because each state keeps its own records — and because there is some duplication — precise figures on the number of registered sex offenders in the United States are difficult to establish. However, based on counts obtained from state and territory registries, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that as of June 2015, 843,260 convicted sex offenders were registered in the U.S. and its territories.

The connection between Internet use and offline community dangers for minors has also been an area of intense study and scrutiny. For an overview, see a comprehensive 2008 report for the state attorneys general of the United States, led by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

The following studies speak to various aspects of this complex area of public policy:


Differing policy approaches

“Variation in Criminal Justice Policy-Making: An Exploratory Study Using Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Laws”
Lytle, Robert. Criminal Justice Policy Review, April 2015, Vol. 26, No. 3. doi: 10.1177/0887403413507274.

Excerpt: “The current study has identified variation in the content of SORCN [Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification] statutes across a purposive sample of five midwestern states. Specifically, distinctions between sex offenders and sexual predators, age criteria for sex offender registration, and each state’s list of registry-worthy offenses varied across states. These findings indicate that some offenders deemed to be dangerous enough to merit registration in some states (e.g., juveniles in Missouri, exhibitionism in Kansas) are not considered as dangerous in others (e.g., juveniles in Nebraska, exhibitionism in Missouri). Also, early methods by which public notification of sex offender information was decided differed across states. Indeed, Nebraska and Iowa used risk-based notification systems early in the history of their notification statutes, wherein only high-risk sex offenders were included in public notification. In addition, states varied significantly in the time between revisions, suggesting that some states may be more prolific in revising SORCN policies.”


“Sex Offender Laws in the United States: Smart Policy or Disproportionate Sanctions?”
Terry, Karen J. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 2015, Vol. 39, Issue 2. doi: 10.1080/01924036.2014.973048.

Abstract: “In the 1990s, the United States began enacting a series of laws to monitor and supervise sex offenders living in the community. These evolved to include Internet registries of sex offenders, sex offender residence restrictions, GPS monitoring, and even civil commitment of sex offenders at the conclusion of their criminal sentences. Though other countries have enacted legislation to monitor sex offenders, none have implemented laws impinging on the civil liberties of offenders to the extent of those in the United States. This article examines the basis of the U.S. laws and their challenges, provides an overview of their efficacy, and compares the U.S. approach to those of other countries.”


Public opinion related to sex offenders and sex crime

“The Complexity of Public Attitudes Toward Sex Crimes”
King, Laura L.; Roberts, Jennifer J. Victims & Offenders: An International Journal of Evidence-based Research, Policy, and Practice, 2015. doi: 10.1080/15564886.2015.1005266.

Abstract: “Previous research suggests that public opinion about crime is nuanced, as it has been found to vary greatly depending upon the type of questions asked and the amount of information provided. Few have similarly examined the complexity of public attitudes specifically about sex crimes. A survey was administered to a sample of U.S. residents utilizing the factorial survey method. The results suggest that specific details about the offense, offender, and victim had a significant effect on perceptions. The findings point to discrepancies between policy and public opinion, as well as to the importance of educating the public about the realities of sexual offending and victimization.”


“Public Opinion of the Application of Sex Offender Notification Laws to Female Sex Offenders: Why It Is Important to Examine”
Cain, Calli M.; Sample, Lisa L.; Anderson, Amy L. Criminal Justice Policy Review, February 2015. doi: 10.1177/0887403415572253.

Abstract:  “Sex offender notification laws depend not only on the public’s access of registration information but also on the belief that those on the registry present a danger to society and thus deserve informal monitoring. As registries have expanded to include more people, perhaps citizens feel some people on registry are incapable of committing sex crimes or do not pose a danger to society. A group whose inclusion the public may question is women, as many scholars have argued there is a societal-level denial that females commit sex crimes. Data from the 2012 Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey were used to determine whether the public agreed that citizens should be notified of convicted female sex offenders living in their communities, whether they would take preventive action if a female sex offender lived in their neighborhood, and whether they think that female sex crimes are less serious than sex crimes committed by men.”


“Criminal Justice Officials’ Views of Sex Offenders, Sex Offender Registration, Community Notification, and Residency Restrictions”
Mustaine, Elizabeth Ehrhardt; et al. Justice System Journal, 2015, Vol. 36, Issue 1. Doi: 10.1080/0098261X.2014.965859.

Abstract: “Despite widespread media attention, research efforts, and political support, there is relatively little known about how individuals who are employed in the criminal justice system perceive the fairness, efficacy, and scope of policies aimed at sex offenders. The present study considers the attitudes and beliefs toward sex offenders and sex offender laws, including registration, community notification, and residency restrictions, held by a diverse sample of criminal justice officials who represent all three major components of the criminal justice system. Findings reveal that variation exists among types of criminal justice officials with respect to their perspectives on sex offenders, and most criminal justice officials endorse the implementation and enforcement of current sex offender laws, despite having doubts about their efficacy.”


Effectiveness of sex-offender registries

“Sex Offender Law and the Geography of Victimization”
Agan, Amanda Y.; Prescott, J.J. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Vol. 11, Issue 4, December 2014.

Abstract: “Sex offender laws that target recidivism (e.g., community notification and residency restriction regimes) are premised — at least in part — on the idea that sex offender proximity and victimization risk are positively correlated. We examine this relationship by combining past and current address information of registered sex offenders (RSOs) with crime data from Baltimore County, Maryland, to study how crime rates vary across neighborhoods with different concentrations of resident RSOs. Contrary to the assumptions of policymakers and the public, we find that, all else equal, reported sex offense victimization risk is generally (although not uniformly) lower in neighborhoods where more RSOs live. To further probe the relationship between where RSOs live and where sex crime occurs, we consider whether public knowledge of the identity and proximity of RSOs may make offending in those areas more difficult for (or less attractive to) all potential sex offenders. We exploit the fact that Maryland’s registry became searchable via the Internet during our sample period to investigate how laws that publicly identify RSOs may change the relationship between the residential concentration of RSOs and neighborhood victimization risk. Surprisingly, for some categories of sex crime, notification appears to increase the relative risk of victimization in neighborhoods with greater concentrations of RSOs.”


“Percentage of Named Offenders on the Registry at the Time of the Assault: Reports From Sexual Assault Survivors”
Craun, Sarah W.; Simmons, Catherine A.; Reeves, Kristen. Violence Against Women, November 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11. doi: 10.1177/1077801211428604.

Abstract:  “Sex offender registries were designed to protect the public from convicted sex offenders and future sexual violence. This study determines the percentage of clients seen at a sexual assault agency whose attacker was on the registry at the time the attack occurred. According to case files, only 3.7% of the identified offenders could possibly have been identified as a registered sex offender at the time of the attack. While considering the limitations of this methodology, the findings highlight a significant limitation of registries and support the idea that registries cannot be relied on exclusively to prevent sexual abuse.”


“The Adam Walsh Act: An Examination of Sex Offender Risk Classification Systems”
Zgoba, Kristen M.; et al. Sex Abuse, February 2015. doi: 10.1177/1079063215569543.

Abstract: “This study was designed to compare the Adam Walsh Act (AWA) classification tiers with actuarial risk assessment instruments and existing state classification schemes in their respective abilities to identify sex offenders at high risk to re-offend. Data from 1,789 adult sex offenders released from prison in four states were collected (Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida, and South Carolina). On average, the sexual recidivism rate was approximately 5% at 5 years and 10% at 10 years. AWA Tier 2 offenders had higher Static-99R scores and higher recidivism rates than Tier 3 offenders, and in Florida, these inverse correlations were statistically significant. Actuarial measures and existing state tier systems, in contrast, did a better job of identifying high-risk offenders and recidivists. As well, we examined the distribution of risk assessment scores within and across tier categories, finding that a majority of sex offenders fall into AWA Tier 3, but more than half score low or moderately low on the Static-99R. The results indicate that the AWA sex offender classification scheme is a poor indicator of relative risk and is likely to result in a system that is less effective in protecting the public than those currently implemented in the states studied.”


“Collateral Consequences of Juvenile Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Results From a Survey of Treatment Providers”
Harris, Andrew J.; et al. Sex Abuse, March 2015. doi: 10.1177/1079063215574004.

Abstract: “Among many in the research, policy, and practice communities, the application of sex offender registration and notification (SORN) to juveniles who sexually offend (JSO) has raised ongoing concerns regarding the potential collateral impacts on youths’ social, mental health, and academic adjustment. To date, however, no published research has systematically examined these types of collateral consequences of juvenile SORN. Based on a survey of a national sample of treatment providers in the United States, this study investigates the perceived impact of registration and notification on JSO across five key domains: mental health, harassment and unfair treatment, school problems, living instability, and risk of reoffending. Results indicate that treatment providers overwhelmingly perceive negative consequences associated with registration with an incremental effect of notification indicating even greater concern across all five domains. Providers’ demographics, treatment modalities, and client profile did not influence their perceptions of the collateral consequences suggesting that provider concern about the potential harm of SORN applied to juveniles is robust. Policy implications are discussed.”



“‘Y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife’: Mobile applications, risk and sex offender databases”
Mowlabocus, Sharif. New Media & Society, July 2015. doi: 10.1177/1461444815593280.

Abstract: “This article reflects upon recent developments in sex offender tracking and monitoring. Taking as its focus a suite of mobile applications available for use in the United States, the author explores the impact and consequences of remediating the data held by State offender databases. The article charts the recent history of techno-corrections as it applies to this category of criminal, before then undertaking an analysis of current remediation of this legally obtained data. In doing so, the author identifies how the recontextualizing of data serves to (re)negotiate the relationship between the user, the database and registered sex offenders. The author concludes by arguing that the (mobile) mapping of offender databases serves to obscure the original intentions of these recording mechanisms and might hinder their effectiveness in reducing sex offending.”


Recidivism and risk assessment

“Sex Offender Recidivism Revisited: Review of Recent Meta-analyses on the Effects of Sex Offender Treatment”
Kim, Bitna; Benekos, Peter J.; Merlo, Alida V. Trauma Violence Abuse. January 2015. doi: 10.1177/1524838014566719.

Abstract: “The effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs continues to generate misinformation and disagreement. Some literature reviews conclude that treatment does not reduce recidivism while others suggest that specific types of treatment may warrant optimism. The principal purpose of this study is to update the most recent meta-analyses of sex offender treatments and to compare the findings with an earlier study that reviewed the meta-analytic studies published from 1995 to 2002. More importantly, this study examines effect sizes across different age populations and effect sizes across various sex offender treatments. Results of this review of meta-analyses suggest that sex offender treatments can be considered as ‘proven’ or at least ‘promising,’ while age of participants and intervention type may influence the success of treatment for sex offenders. The implications of these findings include achieving a broader understanding of intervention moderators, applying such interventions to juvenile and adult offenders, and outlining future areas of research.”


“Defining Probability in Sex Offender Risk Assessment”
Elwood, Richard W. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, June 2015. doi: 10.1177/0306624X15587912.

Abstract:  “There is ongoing debate and confusion over using actuarial scales to predict individuals’ risk of sexual recidivism. Much of the debate comes from not distinguishing Frequentist from Bayesian definitions of probability. Much of the confusion comes from applying Frequentist probability to individuals’ risk. By definition, only Bayesian probability can be applied to the single case. The Bayesian concept of probability resolves most of the confusion and much of the debate in sex offender risk assessment. Although Bayesian probability is well accepted in risk assessment generally, it has not been widely used to assess the risk of sex offenders. I review the two concepts of probability and show how the Bayesian view alone provides a coherent scheme to conceptualize individuals’ risk of sexual recidivism.”


Female sex offenders

“Female Offenders in Child Sexual Abuse Cases: A National Picture”
McLeod, David Axlyn. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 2015, Vol. 24, Issue 1. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2015.978925.

Abstract: “Female sexual offenders are significantly underrepresented in the literature. Largely due to a failure of our society to recognize women as offenders, we allow them to avoid detection, prosecution, and interventions like tracking, registration or mandated treatment. This could be partially due to differences that exist in their offending behaviors, victim profiles, and personal characteristics that set them apart from male offenders, to whom our systems have become more attuned. This article features an examination of virtually every substantiated child sexual abuse case reported to child protective services in the United States for 2010. Findings detail observed differences between male and female offenders on multiple domains and affirm female sexual offenders to be distinctly different from their male counterparts.”


“An Incident-Based Comparison of Female and Male Sexual Offenders”
Williams, Katria S.; Bierie, David M. Sex Abuse, June 2015, Vol. 27, No. 3. doi: 10.1177/1079063214544333.

Abstract: “Identifying the ways in which male and female sex offenders differ is an important but understudied topic. Studies that do exist have been challenged by a reliance on small and select samples. Improving on these limitations, we use the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to compare male and female sex offenders among all 802,150 incidents of sexual assault reported to police across 37 states between 1991 and 2011. Findings indicated some broad similarities between groups, including the most prominent offense location (home), most common victim-offender relationship (acquaintance), and the rarity of injuries or drug abuse during crimes. However, the data also showed several important differences between male and female sexual offenders. Most notably, females offended with male accomplices in more than 30% of their sexual crimes — far more often than occurred among male sexual offenders (2%). Likewise, females offended against a victim of the same sex in nearly half of their crimes, yet this was only true in approximately 10% of male sexual offenses. Implications for future research are discussed.”



Key words: sex crime, sex offender, teachers, registry, children, students, pedophile, recidivism, sexual abuse, treatment, notification, residency restrictions, monitoring, female offender, sexual assault, rape, child protective services, reoffend, mental health, sexual violence, criminal justice, research roundup


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