Fact Sheet 2

Sex Offense Registry Fact Sheet 

Emily Horowitz, Ph.D. // Dept. of Sociology & Criminal Justice, St. Francis College // ehorowitz@sfc.edu

*As of 2018, there were 917,771 people listed on the U.S. sex offense registry (NCMEC, 2018) – an increase of 50,000+ since 2016.

*What is “the registry”? Internet/public postings of those w/sex offense convictions including photos, home address, and crime of conviction; some states list license plates and work addresses.

*Widespread public sex offense registries emerged in the mid-1990s. The Jacob Wetterling Act (1994) requires states to implement a sex offense registration program; Megan’s Law (1996) requires states to conduct community notification and maintain internet sites with sex-offense information; the Pam Lyncher Act (1996) establishes the National Sex Offender Registry. Recent federal laws include the Adam Walsh Act (2006) establishes uniform registration/notification and requires registration for those 14 and older; Keeping the Internet Devoid of Predators Act (2008) requires those convicted of sex offenses to disclose all internet identifiers; International Megan’s Law (2016) requires passport identifiers for those convicted of sex offenses.

*Federal and state sex offense laws often apply for decades and even life, after completion of jail/prison and parole/probation. The rationale that those with sex offense convictions are “hardwired” to re-offend and need special post-conviction, post-sentence long-term monitoring is false. A few examples:

  • A Department of Justice (2003) study tracked 9,691 sex offenders released from prison in 1994 for 3 years – 5.3% were rearrested for a sex crime within 3 years; 3.5% were reconvicted.
  • A Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (2012) study tracked those released in 2005; 3.6% were charged with a new sex crime, 2.7% were convicted, 1.7% returned to prison.
  • A California Department of Corrections (2015) study found that of the 8,471 California sex offenders released from prison in 2009-2010, 0.8% were returned to prison for a new sex crime (91.9% percent were returned for parole violations, 5.3% for a new non-sex crime, 2% for failing to register as a sex offender).

*Do sex offense registries keep us safer?

  • A 2008 study found over 95% of sex offenses in New York were committed by first-time offenders.
  • The sex offender registry is not widely accessed; a Nebraska survey found only 34.8% of adults had actually accessed it.
  • Costs of implementing and maintaining the sex offender registry are astronomical with no clear effect.

   There has been a steady and significant decline in child sexual abuse since 1990—before federal registry laws. Scholars find the decline is largely due to social and economic factors – not the registry.

*Why does the public believe those convicted of sex offenses are destined to re-offend?

State-based laws such “Jessica’s Law” include provisions that those convicted of sex offenses wear GPS devices – often for life – on the grounds that recidivism is inevitable; Ellman & Ellman (2015) detail how false sex offense recidivism data guides major judicial decisions and policies, and how even the Supreme Court has cited a faulty source that falsely claimed “frightening and high” re-offense rates.

*Are residency restrictions (laws requiring those w/sex offense convictions to live a certain distance from schools or other places where children congregate) effective? A Minnesota study investigating 224 recidivistic sex offenders in Minnesota concluded, “not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restriction law” (Minnesota Department of Corrections). Residency restrictions are a form of banishment – homelessness is an “unintended negative consequence” of sex offense residency restrictions (Levenson, Ackerman, Socia & Harris, 2013). 

*Consequences of “Community Notification” laws

Community notification policies may even increase sex offenses recidivism, due to the “severe costs that offset the benefits to offenders of forgoing criminal activity” (Prescott & Rockoff, 2011). Those convicted of sex offenses have wives, partners, children, and parents; registries publicly identify where registrants live, harming family members, including children, in devastating ways (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).

*The registry was designed to protect children from “stranger-danger.” Does it do this?

  • The registry includes people convicted of statutory crimes, “Romeo and Juliet” offenses, non-contact offenses (e.g. looking at images of children or having a conversation with an FBI agent posing as a minor), and those with adult victims. Minorities are over-represented on the registry. Twenty-two percent of those on the registry are black compared to 13% of the U.S. population).
  • About 1/3 of those who sexually abuse minors are children themselves; among adult perpetrators, those under the age of 30 are overrepresented (see here).
  • Between 75% and 93% of people who sexually abuse children are non-strangers. Instead, they are primarily acquaintances and family members.

*Is the United States unique in making sex offender registries publicly available?

A few countries have non-public registries; only South Korea has a fully public registry similar to U.S. A U.K. tabloid published a list of those convicted of sex offenses (2000) to “name and shame” and push for a public registry; the effort was abandoned quickly after a spate of vigilante attacks and opposition from law enforcement and child welfare groups; the U.K. also refused to extradite an alleged sexual abuser because he could be subjected to an indefinite commitment order that would be a “flagrant denial” of the European convention on human rights.


U.S. sex offense laws are based on false assumptions about the victimization of children by strangers who are presumed to be repeat offenders. The reality is that the vast majority of victims are harmed by non-strangers and/or those without prior convictions. Moreover, of those convicted of sexually abusing other children, many are themselves children or young adults. Those labeled “sex offenders” are not “hardwired” to inevitably reoffend, and are responsive to rehabilitation.

We all want to prevent sexual violence – but our sex offense legal regime is ineffective, unfair, and unsupported by research – and makes no one safer.

Sex Offense Registry Fact Sheet // Updated June 2018 // Emily Horowitz, Ph.D.

// Dept. of Sociology & Criminal Justice, St. Francis College (Brooklyn, NY) // ehorowitz@sfc.edu

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