Evaluating Sex Offender Registration Laws

Lisa Williams, CUNY - Graduate Center/John Jay College

Sex offender registration statutes have been in effect for over fifty years, with California being the first to enact such as law in 1944. However, it was not until the 1990s that these laws received the greatest attention. Startling prevalence rates reported by researchers and government agencies as well as several high profile violent sexual assaults against children brought sex crimes to the forefront of discussion. Due to public outrage, federal and state legislatures enacted stringent monitoring guidelines for offenders convicted of a sexual offense.

In 1996, the Federal government passed Megan's law requesting that all state legislatures enact registration statutes or risk losing 10% of their Byrne funds. These statutes protect the public by reducing recidivism through monitoring dangerous offenders more closely. In theory, stricter supervision deters offenders from recidivating and serves as an investigative tool to law enforcement. However, the reliability of these registries depends on whether or not offenders comply with registration requirements. Thus, while all 50 states have accomplished the minimal requirement of establishing a sex offender database under Megan's Law, some states have taken a second step to ensuring public safety by implementing a proactive tracking system to locate absconders.

To date, there continues to be a dearth of research regarding sex offender registration statutes. First, we know that not all offenders comply, but we do not know the characteristics of these offenders. Second, there have not been any evaluations examining whether proactive tracking is helpful in locating noncompliant individuals and lastly, we do not know whether there has been any impact on recidivism rates. In an exploratory study, evaluating state sex offender registration data, the value and shortcomings of registration statutues is examined, providing invaluable information to policy makers.

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Updated 05/20/2006