State Board Says Sex Offender Registry Is a Cluttered Mess that Doesn’t Work

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The official California website for viewing a list of the state’s 98,000 or so registered sex offenders advises visitors that the registry is best viewed using Netscape 6.1, a browser that was popular in the 1990s and hasn’t been supported since 2008.

Antiquated and unsupported might be a decent summary of what the California Sex Offender Management Board told lawmakers it thinks of the registry, which it claims has grown too large and unwieldy to be effective.

Building on recommendations (pdf) it made in 2010, the board said the state Legislature should stop treating all sex offenders alike, regardless of the seriousness of their crimes. It proposed that only high-risk offenders be kept on the list for life, while others are removed over a period of years. Around 22,000 of the offenders on the list are currently incarcerated.

Around one-third of those on the list are considered moderate- to high-risk. At the high end, that includes kidnappers and violent predators. The low end can include some unfortunate guy busted while urinating against a wall in public or visiting a prostitute.

Around 900 people have been in the registry, which was started in 1947, for 55 years or more. The state registry was transformed when Congress passed the Sexual Offender (Jacob Wetterling) Act of 1994, informally known as Megan’s Law, requiring people convicted of sex crimes against children to notify local law enforcement of any change in address or employment status.

States were given latitude to expand the registration to include all sex crimes and California joined in. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006 created a national registry, established a new tiered classification system for offenders and required states to participate or face penalties. California has resisted going along, but has added features to its registry on its own, like including photos for 80% of the registrants.

Part of the reason for a reluctance to beef up the registry, rather than thin it out, is that registries have limited value, and “widely held” assumptions about their effectiveness “are, in almost every case, not accurate,” according to the state sex offender board.

One popular myth is that most sex crimes are committed by known sex offenders. Not true. “About 95% of solved sex crimes are committed by individuals never previously identified as sex offenders and so not registered,” the report says.

Other non-intuitive facts: The overwhelming number of people (93%) who commit sex offenses against children are not strangers and “research studies have found no relationship between having a registry and a decrease in sex offenses.”

The board suggested a tiered structure of its own, with non-serious and non-violent offenders, including all those convicted of misdemeanors, staying in the registry for 10 years but not displayed publicly on Megan’s list. Serious or violent felony offenders who are not high-risk offenders as defined by the law would stay in the registry for 20 years, but could petition to come off Megan’s list after 10 years.

The third tier would keep sexually violent predators, kidnappers, repeat offenders and high-risk offenders in the registry and on Megan’s list for life. 

The bottom line for the board was, “Modifying registration practices will . . . improve public safety in California by focusing effort and resources on more dangerous offenders.”

The board’s recommendations are certain to receive a measure of resistance from those who find tiers too nuanced an approach to crime prevention. Republican state Senator Jim Nielsen told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I think all sex offenders are dangerous, period. . . . I think the risks are too great to try to intellectualize this stuff.”

Too much thinking can be a dangerous thing. Perhaps those indulging in it should be registered and have their pictures posted online.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Board Wants to Remove Low-Risk Sex Offenders from Registry (by Melody Gutierrez, San Francisco Chronicle)

California’s Sex Offender List Is So Harsh It’s Useless, Lawmakers Say as Debate Ramps Up (by Scott Kaufman, The Raw Story)

Most States Find Joining National Sex Offender Database Not Cost-Effective (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

A Better Path to Community Safety (California Sex Offender Management Board) (pdf)

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