The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that the number of registered sex offenders in the United States has increased by nearly a quarter in the last five years. The total in the most recent survey was 747,408, up from 606,816 in 2006, the first year NCMEC did a count. That was the year when Congress enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (currently up for reauthorization), which imposed new requirements for state sex offender registries and created a national database incorporating information from those registries. NCMEC CEO Ernie Allen says registration "is a reasonable measure designed to provide important information to authorities and to help protect the public, particularly children." Yet his group does not say how many of the 747,408 people listed on sex offender registries are predatory criminals who actually pose a threat to public safety, probably because it does not know.
The usefulness even of properly focused registries is debatable, since Justice Department data indicate that almost nine out of 10 sex crimes are committed by people with no records for that kind of offense. Furthermore, as I explained in a July Reason article, registered sex offenders include people convicted of nonviolent crimes such as solicitation, public urination, streaking, and consensual sex with teenagers (even teenagers they subsequently marry). Allen avers that "these registries are especially important because of the high risk of re-offense by some of these offenders" (emphasis added). As I note in the Reason piece, recidivism rates for sex offenders seem to have been greatly exaggerated. In any case, if protecting potential victims is the raison d'etre for the registries, shouldn't they be limited to people who are likely to commit crimes against others?