Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Recidivism?

No. Or at least that is what the empirical evidence and research on this issue shows. But that doesn't mean we should not have them. The fact is that the registries don't really do anything to improve public safety.
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No. Or at least that is what the empirical evidence and research on this issue shows. But that doesn't mean we should not have them. The fact is that the registries don't really do anything to improve public safety. They just make people feel safer and in control; unfortunately this is a false sense of security.

Why Don't Registries Reduce Recidivism?

There is no reason to believe that a registry is going to do anything to reduce re-offending because registries don't address what drives someone to commit a sex crime. Put another way, sex offender registries probably don't work because they miss the mark on what works and what does not. Registries don't really address the behavior of sex offenders.

First of all, not all sex offenders are the same and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Sex offender is a category of criminal offending. It is not a homogenous group. Pediophiles are very different than someone guilty of a drunken rape, and both are very different than someone who is guilty of statutory rape. And then there are many more types of sex offenders. The way each type thinks is different. The likelihood of reoffending is different. The effectiveness and utility of treatment is very different for each. There is nothing to suggest that there is one solution to all these different problems.

Second, registries and community notification do not do anything to change the behavior of the sex offender. It is only useful in letting the public know who previously offended and where they live. With the exception of pedophiles and perhaps a serial rapist, past behavior does not really predict future behavior with most sex offenders, of which many are not pedophiles or serial rapists. Contrary to popular perceptions, considering that sex offender recidivism is very low, we would not expect that past behavior to predict future behavior.

Why Should We Keep Sex Offender Registries?

There is more to policy than just evidence-based practices. In politics and government administration, there is ever present concerns with effective policy and the optics of policy. Now, while I already discussed that registries are a false sense of security, that they take time away from what does work, and that there is no evidence that they reduce recidivism, there is reason to keep them. Parents and the public want to know who have committed sex offenses. And since all criminal records are public information, this information should not be suppressed. However, the public needs to start to understand that sex offender registries don't keep people safe. And the public also needs to realize that not all sex offenders are pedophiles. Most are people who will never re-offend ever again. The statistics are very clear about this.

What Should Be Done to Keep People Safe?

If depends. Are we talking about children, women, vulnerable populations or someone else?

  • Children: Parents need to educate their children on what is appropriate touching and inappropriate touching, when boundaries are crossed, when to report that boundaries have been crossed, and to let children know that they won't get in trouble for reporting violations. Parents need to realize that the person most likely to sexually abuse their child is someone they know and trust, and someone who has regular contact with their child. It is not only important for parents to educate their children, but schools need to educate their students because sometimes the abuse is happening at home. And parents and educators need to be properly trained how to identify when a child is being victimized.
  • Women: Self defense courses, common sense about what is risky behavior and what is not, i.e. going out alone at night, carrying and being trained in the use of pepper spray and tasers, drinking a drink at a nightclub that has not been under constant surveillance and therefore has not been tampered with, and much more.
  • Vulnerable populations: Populations such as the elders, patients and the disabled, to name a few, need to also be educated on boundaries being crossed and the need for victims to report, for cameras to record residential areas, and for staff to be properly trained how to identify when someone is being victimized.

In addition to the person, the individual and the guardian being the first and best line of defense against sex offenders, we need to include who is a pedophile in our classification of the Sex Offender Level. In some states, pedophilia as a DSM diagnosis, is not included as a variable when determining who is a level 1, 2 or 3 sex offender. We need to make sure that we empirically evaluate the effectiveness of correctional treatment programs aimed at reducing sex offending. There is a lot that can and should be done. The point of this article is not to get into all of that; that point of this article is to highlight that sex offender registries don't reduce sex offender recidivism.

Politicians and community leaders need to educate their constituents about what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately, in my experience as a politician, and even before I entered politics when I was working in corrections, I have observed that too many people use what I call "numbers on a page" -- shoddy statistics with little to no real methodology. Or they make an appeal to emotion or an appeal to logic and what sounds to make sense (albeit logic and sound bites that are devoid of any substantive evidence). Only after that display of leadership can we expect a shift in our thinking about what we can and should be doing to keep people safe from sex crimes.

In Conclusion

Sex offender registries don't reduce recidivism. The research is very clear on this. We are never going to be able to eliminate sexual abuse and criminal offending. But we can and should take effective steps to reduce the crimes from happening. I am not pro-sex offender; that is not my position and not what I think. My concern is that we need to move away from all feel good measures that offer nothing more than a false sense of security, and take time and energy away from offering the public proven evidence-based interventions.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. Paul has a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC, a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul can be reached at or 508-639-9511.

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