Dangerous Assumption

Sex offender registration


"When they reenter society at large," Solicitor General Theodore Olson said in a recent Supreme Court brief, "convicted sex offenders have a much higher recidivism rate for their offense of conviction than any other type of violent felon." Olson was defending sex offender registration laws, two of which –Alaska's and Connecticut's –have been challenged in cases the Supreme Court heard last fall.

Such laws, which have been adopted by all 50 states, require sex offenders released from prison to report their whereabouts to the government, which passes the information on to the public. As Olson's claim reflects, one of the main rationales for singling out sex offenders is the assumption that they are especially likely to commit new crimes. That belief, although widely held, seems to have little basis in fact.

Olson himself cited data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that contradict his assertion. Among prisoners released in 1994, 2.5 percent of rapists were arrested for a new rape in the three years covered by the study. By comparison, 13 percent of the offenders who had served time for robbery and 23 percent of the offenders who had served time for (nonsexual) assault were arrested again for similar crimes.

Studies that cover longer periods and include other kinds of sex offenders find higher recidivism rates, but still nothing like those claimed by politicians. In 1996 a California legislator declared that sex offenders "will immediately commit this crime again at least 90 percent of the time." The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives cites three large studies, covering tens of thousands of sex offenders, that reported rearrest rates for sex offenses ranging from 13 percent to 19 percent.

It seems that a large majority of people forced to register as sex offenders are actually former sex offenders who will not repeat their crimes. Moreover, registration laws cover not only rape and child molestation but nonviolent offenses such as consensual sex with a teenager, indecent exposure, and possession of child pornography.

No wonder Connecticut's online Sex Offender Registry proclaimed that "the Department of Public Safety has not considered or assessed the specific risk of reoffense with regard to any individual prior to his or her inclusion within this registry, and has made no determination that any individual included in this registry is currently dangerous." The disclaimer may have negated the whole point of registration –warning the public about especially dangerous offenders –but at least it was honest.