Social Justice and the Need for Evidence-based
Sex Offender Registry Reform
JILL S. LEVENSON
MELISSA D. GRADY
School of Social Welfare
Stony Brook University
State University of New York
Sex offender registries, though popular, bring with them enormous
fiscal costs and unintended consequences for offenders and commu-
nities. Consistent with the Grand Challenges, social workers can
play a role in advocating for sex offender management policies that
are better informed by evidence and thus a better use of resources.
Registry reform would also mediate the stigma resulting from the
sex offender label, and reduce barriers to offender reintegration. A
brief history of registration laws and the research regarding their
effectiveness will be provided, followed by a rationale for needed im-
provements in sex offender management policy. Five evidence-based
recommendations for reform will be proposed: (1) juveniles should
not be subjected to sex offender registration; (2) registration dura-
tions should be guided by risk assessment research; (3) procedures
for relief and removal from registries should be available; (4) discre-
tion should be returned to judges; (5) residence restrictions should
be abolished. Such changes can result in improved public safety out-
comes and social justice, as well as reduced fiscal and social costs.
Key words: Sex offender, policy, social work grand challenge, reg-
istry, registration, social justice
Recently, social work leaders have embraced a set of
"Grand Challenges" (Barth, Gilmore, Flynn, Fraser, & Brekke,
Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2016, Volume XLIII, Number 2
2014; Uehara et al., 2013) to address a range of complex and
inter-related social problems that deeply impact American
society. The primary aim of these grand challenges is to "gal-
vanize social workers' collective contribution to the quality of
life and promotion of an equitable society in the 21st century"
by reducing poverty and inequality and by improving access
to health and human services (Uehara et al., 2013, p. 167). The
leaders of this movement have proposed forming a unified and
cohesive approach to addressing the complex issues they have
identified. In doing so, the profession will benefit from the in-
tegration of collaborative leadership, knowledge, science, and
public dialogue to effect innovative and transformative solu-
tions (Uehara et al., 2013).
Among those grand challenges for social workers is the
predicament of mass incarceration and the inherent racial and
economic disparities that have fueled its progression (Pettus-
Davis & Epperson, 2015). Social work scholars have argued
that individuals involved in the criminal justice system face
numerous social injustices (Bracken, McNeill, & Clarke, 2010;
Fenton, 2011; Scheyett, Pettus-Davis, McCarter, & Brigham,
2012; Zumdahl, 2011) and that disparities are rampant, with
the poor and people of color disproportionately affected (Pew
Charitable Trusts, 2009). Social work's commitment to chal-
lenging injustice features prominently in the NASW Code of
Ethics (NASW, 2008). Therefore, our profession must address
the "ways in which social institutions inhibit or liberate
persons" (Young, 2011, p. 34).
Few examples are more illustrative and poignant with
regard to the way social systems may inhibit the rights of in-
dividuals than the policies addressing management of those
who have committed sexual offenses. This article will first
give a brief history of sex offender registration and notifica-
tion (SORN) laws and the research around their effectiveness.
Next, a rationale for needed improvements in sex offender
management policy will be provided. Finally, evidence-in-
formed recommendations will be offered for five proposed
areas of reform. We believe that this topic is one of relevance
for social workers, victims, survivors, and offenders, as well
as for policy analysts and legislators. Though sex offend-
ers arouse little sympathy in our society, registry reform is
4 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
consistent with the mission of the Grand Challenges facing the
social work profession. Evidence-informed changes can result
in improved public safety outcomes and social justice in our
The History and Evolution of SORN Laws
There are perhaps no crimes that inspire as much fear, re-
vulsion, and outrage as sexual offenses. Over the past several
decades, in response to a series of brutal and highly publi-
cized sexual crimes, lawmakers have responded decisively to
the public's demand for protective legislation. The purpose of
SORN laws is to increase public awareness about sex offend-
ers living among us so that concerned citizens and parents can
take protective actions to prevent victimization. Furthermore,
sex offender registration provides a system by which law en-
forcement agencies can track, supervise, and monitor these
The evolution of contemporary sex offender policy began
in 1989, when 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted in
Minnesota while riding his bike with his brother and a friend.
The Wetterlings successfully advocated for federal guidelines
requiring known sex criminals to register their addresses with
local law enforcement agents in order to help identify potential
suspects in such cases (Jacob Wetterling Act, 1994). Since that
time, states have required all adults convicted of sex crimes
and some juveniles to register. In 1996, after seven-year-old
Megan Kanka was sexually assaulted and murdered by a con-
victed sex offender in New Jersey, Megan's Law was passed
allowing the release of registry data to the public. States were
later required to create publicly accessible and searchable
online registry websites by 2003. About half of the states clas-
sify offenders by risk levels and notify the public differentially
according to the offender's threat to children and other pos-
sible victims. Other states employ broad notification policies,
publicly identifying all individuals convicted of sexual crimes
regardless of risk.
In 2006, federal SORN requirements were refined once
again by the passage of the Adam Walsh Act (AWA)—named
for a Florida child who was abducted from a shopping mall
Sex Offender Registry Reform 5
and murdered in 1981—which standardized guidelines in an
effort to create uniformity across all 50 states (Adam Walsh
Act, 2006). The AWA required implementation of a pre-de-
signed 3-tier offense-based classification system with concor-
dant registration durations of 10 years for misdemeanors, and
25 year or lifetime registration for felony offenders. The law
mandates prison sentences for sex offenders who fail to prop-
erly register. States that do not comply with AWA lose 10%
of their federal criminal justice funding; currently, 19 states
are compliant with AWA federal guidelines. The AWA also
created the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring,
Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office),
and designated resources for the FBI to integrate all state regis-
tries into a searchable National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR).
Summary of Research about SORN
In 2015 over 843,000 registered sex offenders (RSO) resided
in the U.S. (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,
2015a), although at least 12% are not living in the community
because they are confined, deceased, or deported (Ackerman,
Harris, Levenson, & Zgoba, 2011). Approximately one-third of
RSOs have been deemed by their state's assessment process
to pose a low risk for future offending and therefore are not
listed on public registries, and their status is known only to
law enforcement (Ackerman et al., 2011). Among RSOs who
appear on public registries, about 14% have been designated
by states as high risk, predator, or sexually violent (Ackerman
et al., 2011). Nearly 98% of RSOs are male, the average age is
about 45 years old, and the majority (85 - 90%) have only one
sex offense conviction (Levenson, Ackerman, & Harris, 2013;
Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008). Approximately 90% of regis-
tered sex offenders have had a minor victim under the age of 18,
with about one-third of victims under 10 years old, and most
(87 - 89%) victims (adult and minor) are female (Ackerman et
al., 2011; Finkelhor et al., 2008). As is true throughout the crim-
inal justice system, minorities are over-represented on sex of-
fender registries: 22% of RSOs are black, compared to 12 - 13%
of the U.S. population (Ackerman et al., 2011).
Public perception surveys have found strong support for
6 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
sex offender registries (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, & Baker,
2007; Pickett, Mancini, & Mears, 2013; Sample & Kadleck, 2008),
however, an analysis of sexual assault cases from a victim ad-
vocacy center reported that less than 4% of the offenders would
have been found on a registry prior to the abusive incident
(Craun, Simmons, & Reeves, 2011). Few people seem to utilize
registries with any regularity or take preventive measures
after searching a registry (Anderson & Sample, 2008; Beck &
Travis, 2004; Kernsmith, Comartin, Craun, & Kernsmith, 2009).
Despite the fact that registries make people feel safer, the data
indicate that their actual effectiveness in preventing sexual re-
cidivism is quite weak.
There are many methodological challenges faced by re-
searchers when conducting sex crime policy analysis. For
example, low recidivism base rates, the confound of several
policies enacted within short time frames, the difficulties of
prospective research designs to collect large samples of recidi-
vism data, and the need for long follow-up periods all contrib-
ute to the complexities of measuring the impact of these laws.
Moreover, though national guidelines exist, the SORN policy
in each state is idiosyncratic, complicating efforts to conduct
national sex offender policy research (Harris, 2011).
About two dozen studies have been conducted to evaluate
the impact of SORN, and most involve one of two method-
ologies: group differences of sex offenders required to register
compared with those who were not, and time-series or trend
analyses of sex crime rates over time. Most single-state studies
have not detected significant reductions in sex crime rates
that can be credited to SORN policies (Letourneau, Levenson,
Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010; Levenson & Zgoba,
2015; Sandler et al., 2008; Veysey, Zgoba, & Dalessandro, 2008;
Zgoba, Veysey, & Dalessandro, 2010). Modest effects were de-
tected in Minnesota and Washington (Duwe & Donnay, 2008;
Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2005); both states
use empirically-derived risk assessment classification systems
to reserve aggressive and long-term public registration for the
most high-risk offenders.
Multi-state studies have also produced mixed results,
but most show small or no effects on recidivism attributable
to SORN laws. For instance, an investigation of the impact
Sex Offender Registry Reform 7
of SORN laws on sexual assault rates in ten states (Vasquez,
Maddan, & Walker, 2008) showed a significant increase in rape
rates in California following implementation, while Hawaii,
Idaho, and Ohio had significant decreases in rape rates, and
the remaining six states (Arkansas, Connecticut, Nebraska,
Nevada, Oklahoma, & West Virginia) showed non-significant
An analysis examining data from over 300,000 sex crimes
in 15 states found that, while registration appeared to decrease
the rate of recidivistic sex offenses, public notification did
not (Prescott & Rockoff, 2011). Using Uniform Crime Report
(UCR) data from 1985-2003, Agan (2011) failed to find a signifi-
cant decline in arrest rates of rape or sexual abuse after regis-
tration was implemented, or after public Internet access to reg-
istry information was instituted. Agan also examined Bureau
of Justice Statistics (BJS) data tracking individual sex offenders
after their release from prison in 1994, and determined that
having to register as a sex offender did not lead to significant
reductions in sex offense recidivism (Agan, 2011). Using UCR
data for the years 1970-2002, Ackerman, Sacks and Greenberg
(2012) concurred that SORN legislation did not result in dra-
matic declines in forcible rapes.
Other recent investigations have raised questions about
the utility and validity of the federally mandated Adam Walsh
Act tier system, which requires states to classify sex offenders
using the characteristics of their offenses rather than risk as-
sessments grounded in empirically-derived factors. In Florida,
New Jersey, Minnesota, and South Carolina (Zgoba et al.,
2015) and in New York (Freeman & Sandler, 2010), the AWA
offense-based classification process did a poor job of identi-
fying potential recidivists. The authors opined that empiri-
cally developed risk assessment procedures were better than
offense categories for screening sex offenders into relative risk
categories to establish monitoring requirements. The AWA
classification process often over-estimates risk, contradicting
evidence suggesting that the highest risk of sexual re-offense
is concentrated among a small group of offenders (Harris,
Lobanov-Rostovsky, & Levenson, 2010), but offense-based
classification schemes also sometimes under-estimate risk
because some offenders plea-bargain down to lesser crimes
8 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
that may not truly reflect their dangerousness (Letourneau,
Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Armstrong, & Sinha, 2010).
In short, the abundance of evidence does not point to the
effectiveness of registration systems in reliably classifying of-
fenders, reducing recidivism, or preventing sex crimes. The
absence of an empirical link does not rule out the possibility of
undetected public safety impacts and efficacy of SORN laws,
and it is also feasible that individual effects might exist as a
result of law enforcement monitoring and case management,
or prevention efforts by citizens (Bierie, 2015). Many scholars,
however, have agreed that the accumulation of empirical evi-
dence strongly suggests that the fiscal and social costs of these
laws outweigh their benefits (Ackerman, Sacks, & Greenberg,
2012; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2009). Of course
there are dangerous predators who should be carefully moni-
tored, and registry information may be useful to citizens and
law agents in anecdotal cases. However, the data raise ques-
tions about the widespread use of registries, the costs and ben-
efits of them, and the social justice implications for offenders
who aspire for second chances to demonstrate productive and
Rationale for Registry Reform
Labeling theory proposes that self-identity and behavior
of individuals may be determined or influenced by the words
used to describe or classify them; the stigma and isolation re-
sulting from labels attached to those who deviate from social
norms can be demeaning and may become deeply entrenched
in one's self-concept (Goffman, 1963; Maruna, LeBel, Mitchell,
& Naples, 2004). Labeling and its resulting social rejection is
also related to the concepts of stereotyping and self-fulfilling
prophecy, such as when an individual internalizes assump-
tions about him or herself made by others and then behaves
in a way that conforms to that notion (Paternoster & Iovanni,
1989). In the context of theories of crime, the exclusionary
practices activated by shaming labels can isolate stigmatized
groups from mainstream social life, solidifying one's deviant
identity and fortifying criminal behavior (Bernburg, Krohn,
& Rivera, 2006; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989). Thus, when we
Sex Offender Registry Reform 9
label people by the very description we don't want them to be,
we actually prevent the cognitive transformation that plays a
role in social conformity and reduced recidivism risk (Maruna
et al., 2004; Willis, 2015). This is especially true for the sex of-
fender designation, which defines individuals for life, some-
times by isolated events, in ways that foster unequivocal nega-
tion of other aspects of their character and behavior.
Recent cases calling attention to the need for registry
reform have prompted public dialogue in prominent media
outlets including the New York Times, NPR's Diane Rehm Show,
the New Yorker magazine, CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, and
ABC's Nightline (e.g., Bosman, 2015; National Public Radio,
2015; Stillman, 2016). For example, Zachery Anderson was a
19-year-old college student with no criminal history when he
met a teenage girl on a dating app and had sex with her. The
girl, who admitted she lied about her age, turned out to be
only 14, which made their encounter a sex crime. Despite testi-
monials by the girl and her mother begging the judge for leni-
ency, Zachery was sentenced to 90 days in jail, followed by five
years of probation, and landed on the sex offender registry in
two states for 25 years (Bosman, 2015; Levenson, 2015).
As Zachery's story illustrates, all sex offenders are not
the stereotypical monsters we imagine. Of the nearly 850,000
registered sex offenders in the U.S., about 6 - 7% are age 25
or younger (Ackerman et al., 2011), and many of their crimes
involve situations like Zachery's. We know from decades of
neuroscience research that the executive regions of the brain
continue to develop well into the mid-twenties, and that teens
are often poorly equipped to fully appreciate the long-term
implications of their choices. Sex offender registries were
originally envisioned to help concerned citizens and parents
prevent victimization by listing predatory, violent, and pe-
dophilic offenders who pose a true threat to children and
others in our communities. This goal is impeded by a system
that forces people like Zachery to register, diluting the pub-
lic's ability to tell who is really dangerous, creating an added
workload burden for law enforcement personnel, and gen-
erating an inefficient distribution of fiscal resources. Every
dollar spent monitoring someone like Zachery is a dollar not
available for victim services, child protection responses, and
10 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
prevention programs for at-risk families (Levenson, 2012). All
sex offenders are not the same, and the high monetary, human,
and social costs of these policies are worthy of consideration.
Registries also contain many other offenders who may
pose little threat to public safety, including non-contact and
first-time offenders assessed to be at low risk to reoffend. An
ever-growing national registry system tracking over 850,000
individuals weakens the public's ability to distinguish truly
dangerous offenders. The size and scope of the registry means
that impacts are felt by millions of people, including regis-
trants and their families. Though sex offenders inspire little
sympathy, evidence and logic suggest that in many ways reg-
istries contradict best practices in criminal re-entry. They may
unfairly and unnecessarily deprive offenders of opportunities
for success; indeed, the federal Second Chance Act, passed in
2008, specifically excluded sex offenders from its programs. As
social workers, if we believe in social justice, we cannot pick
and choose to whom it applies.
Collateral Consequences of
Sex Offender Management Policies
The challenges of reintegration after a criminal convic-
tion are even more pronounced for registered sex offenders.
The legacy of any felony conviction often includes employ-
ment obstacles, denial of public benefits, decreased educa-
tional opportunities, and disenfranchisement (Maruna et al.,
2004; Petersilia, 2003; Pettus-Davis & Epperson, 2015; Uggen,
Manza, & Behrens, 2004), but the unique label of "sex offend-
er" can obstruct community re-entry even more profoundly.
Sex offenders in many states report employment difficulties,
housing disruption, relationship loss, threats and harassment,
and property damage (Levenson & Cotter, 2005a; Levenson,
D'Amora, & Hern, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008;
Sample & Streveler, 2003; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005; Tewksbury
& Lees, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000b). Psychosocial symptoms
such as shame, stigma, isolation, anxiety, depression, and hope-
lessness are also commonly reported by sex offenders. These
impacts extend to their family members, who report financial,
practical, social, and psychological effects when a loved one
Sex Offender Registry Reform 11
12 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
is placed on the registry (Farkas & Miller, 2007; Levenson &
Tewksbury, 2009; Tewksbury & Levenson, 2009). Employment
and housing problems experienced by the RSO were identified
as the most pressing issues for family members, and some also
described threats and harassment by community members,
as well as social rejection of children of RSOs by teachers and
classmates (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).
The deleterious consequences of registration are particu-
larly salient for youthful sex offenders (Chaffin, 2008; Harris,
Walfield, Shields, & Letourneau, 2015; Letourneau & Miner,
2005; Pittman & Parker, 2013; Stillman, 2016). The Adam Walsh
Act initially mandated states to publicly register juveniles as
young as 14 who were adjudicated for sexual crimes, but after
significant pushback from developmental psychologists, treat-
ment specialists, and attorneys, this provision was revised to
allow for discretion in placing juveniles on public registries.
More recently, legal scholars have questioned the constitution-
ality of juvenile registration, given the U.S. Supreme Court's
decision that lifetime sentences for juvenile offenders violate
the Eighth Amendment (Parker, 2014; Sterling, 2015).
In a report to the Vermont legislature, advocates argued
that there was no evidence that public registration and notifi-
cation requirements for juveniles, and especially younger chil-
dren, are associated with positive treatment outcomes or with
improved safeguarding of other children (Burford, Gallagher,
Leibowitz, & Robinson, 2007). Additionally, a compelling and
deeply disturbing Human Rights Watch report conducted
nearly 300 interviews and documented the irreparable harm
of juvenile registration on youth and their families (Pittman
& Parker, 2013). The negative, iatrogenic effects of registration
significantly impact mental health, physical safety, and edu-
cational opportunities for youth, who reported remarkably
similar stories of stigma, isolation, despair, suicidality, hope-
lessness, harassment and violence against them, as well as pro-
A survey of juvenile sex offender treatment specialists con-
curred that these negative effects are seen in 85% of registered
youth, and that approximately 20% had attempted suicide
(Harris, Walfield et al., 2015). It is unlikely that these conse-
quences are markedly different for young adults who have
passed their 18th birthdays, as the severe limitations placed on
one's potential future are daunting. Yet, 41 states have some
form of registration for juveniles adjudicated delinquent for
a sex crime, 30 states permit or require website publication of
the registration information, and most states require registra-
tion for juveniles waived over and convicted in adult court
(SMART Office, 2015).
Sex offender residence restriction (SORR) laws prohibit-
ing RSOs from living within close proximity to schools, parks,
playgrounds, or daycare centers are tied to registration status
and further exacerbate these immense barriers to offender re-
entry (Levenson, 2008; Socia, Levenson, Ackerman, & Harris,
2015). Housing restrictions frequently force sex offenders to
relocate, prevent them from returning to their own homes
after conviction, and preclude them from living with family
members (Levenson, 2008; Levenson & Cotter, 2005b; Levenson
& Hern, 2007; Mercado et al., 2008). Many report that afford-
able housing is less available due to limits on where they can
live, that landlords refuse to rent to them or to renew a lease,
and that they are forced to live farther away from employ-
ment, public transportation, social services, and mental health
treatment. Young adults are especially impacted by these laws
when they are unable to live with family and have difficul-
ties securing affordable housing (Levenson, 2008; Levenson &
Hern, 2007). In densely populated communities, the combina-
tion of extensive buffer zones and more costly rental prices can
create a "perfect storm" for sex offender homelessness and dis-
placement, interfering with law enforcement agents' ability to
track and supervise registrants (Levenson, Ackerman, Socia,
& Harris, 2015, p. 20).
Ironically, housing instability is consistently associated
with criminal recidivism and absconding (Petersilia, 2003;
Roman & Travis, 2004; Schulenberg, 2007; Steiner, Makarios,
& Travis, 2015), suggesting that housing restrictions may ac-
tually undermine the very purpose of registration laws and
compromise public safety (Levenson et al., 2013). Such laws
can also cause RSOs to cluster in the few locations where
compliant housing is available, resulting in a disproportion-
ate number of offenders in a small geographical area and un-
derstandably raising concerns for the safety of children living
Sex Offender Registry Reform 13
14 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
in such neighborhoods (Broward County Commission, 2009;
Socia, 2013). Legislation that thwarts sex offenders' housing
stability contradicts another of social work's grand challenges:
ending homelessness (Henwood et al., 2015).
Sex Offense Recidivism
Sex offender laws have been inspired by the common
belief that most sex offenders inevitably reoffend and that
they therefore require special management. Research indi-
cates, however, that sex offense recidivism rates are lower
than commonly believed, averaging from 5% to 15% depend-
ing on the study (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003; Hanson &
Bussiere, 1998; Hanson, Harris, Helmus, & Thornton, 2014;
Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Helmus, Hanson, Thornton,
Babchishin, & Harris, 2012; Zgoba et al., 2015). They are less
likely to be re-arrested for a new crime compared to other
violent, property, and drug offenders (Durose, Cooper, &
Snyder, 2014; Sample & Bray, 2006). It is often argued that low
recidivism rates reflect the high number of sex crimes that go
undetected, and of course, many are not reported. It is well
established, however, that a small group of predatory or pe-
dophilic offenders has a high volume of victims, and that on
average the majority of sexual offenders are not arrested for
repeat sex crimes (Abel et al., 1987; Harris & Hanson, 2004;
Helmus et al., 2012). Rates of recidivism for juvenile sex of-
fenders are very low (about 7% over 5 years) (Caldwell, 2010),
and the collateral consequences of registration for youth and
their families are devastating (Harris, Walfield et al., 2015;
Pittman & Parker, 2013; Stillman, 2016).
Importantly, recent longitudinal research has found
that sex offender recidivism risk declines substantially over
time as individuals remain in the community offense-free.
Remarkably, low risk sex offenders commit new sex crimes at
rates below general criminal offenders; in other words, crimi-
nal offenders with no prior sex offense history are re-arrested
for a subsequent sex crime more often than low-risk convicted
sex offenders (Hanson et al., 2014; Harris & Hanson, 2012).
After 16.5 years in the community without a new sex crime
arrest, even high-risk sexual offenders are no more likely to be
arrested for a new sex offense than non-sexual criminals, and
moderate risk sex offenders cross that threshold after about
10 years. While some sex offenders certainly pose a long-term
and serious danger to community members, many do not.
While the national costs of sex offender registration are dif-
ficult to estimate, law enforcement agents and others have ex-
pressed concerns about fiscal and workforce demands (Harris,
Lobanov-Rostovsky, & Levenson, 2015). The expenditures of
registry programs include local police surveillance and com-
pliance verification of RSOs, costs associated with non-com-
pliance, such as courts and incarceration, and expenses for
continuous technological improvements to build and maintain
online registries and to seamlessly update and connect registry
systems with other databases (Harris, 2011; Harris & Lobanov-
Rostovsky, 2010; Matson & Lieb, 1996; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000a;
Zgoba et al., 2009). When quantifiable costs are summed, they
are estimated to range from $10 billion to $40 billion nation-
ally per year (Belzer, 2015). In a 2009-2010 appropriations bill,
Congress substantially increased the U.S. Marshal Service
budget by $10,000,000 above their $50,985,000 request to
expand Adam Walsh Act enforcement (111th Congress, 2009).
More than half of states have elected not to comply with the
AWA due to the financial burden it placed on them, because
the loss of federal dollars was estimated to be less than the
costs of implementing new mandates (Harris & Lobanov-
Rostovsky, 2010; Justice Policy Institute, 2008).
Only one known cost-benefit analysis related to SORN has
been done to date (Belzer, 2015), because such an endeavor is
complicated by many factors (Harris, 2016). Implementation
of these laws is not uniform, and incremental costs and ben-
efits vary significantly from state to state and over time,
making it nearly impossible to tabulate the multiplicity of
exact agency expenses incurred and the proportion of state
budgets allocated for sex offender management. Importantly,
assigning a dollar value to the primary benefit of interest—
reduced victimization—presents innumerable challenges, and
various SORN-related costs may each carry its own "return on
Sex Offender Registry Reform
investment." The complex web of inter-related and multi-sys-
temic fiscal costs is exceedingly difficult to deconstruct, and
the human and social costs of sexual assault for victims and
registration mandates for offenders are multifarious and con-
founding when attempting to quantify them (Harris, 2016).
That said, it is indisputable that the number of individuals on
state registries increases each year (National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children, 2015a) and that the expenditures for
sex offender management grow accordingly.
States have had to invest enormous resources in techno-
logical advancements and administrative data systems, law
enforcement personnel for offender monitoring and compli-
ance management, and expenses associated with courts and
corrections for registry violators. Registration mandates pass
on implementation costs to offenders and their families, home-
owners (decreased real estate values), renters and landlords,
businesses and employers, schools, state and municipal gov-
ernments and the public at large. With individuals placed on
registries for mandatory durations of 25 years or life, little at-
trition occurs, and fiscal burdens for states will continue to
escalate. Notably, 62% of states elected not to implement the
2006 requirements of the Adam Walsh Act, citing the initial
and ongoing expenditures associated with the federal guide-
lines as a primary obstacle (Harris & Lobanov-Rostovsky,
2010; Justice Policy Institute, 2008).
Belzer (2015) conducted a quantitative retrospective as-
sessment of the benefits and costs of registration and notifica-
tion laws as currently enacted and implemented, followed by a
second qualitative prospective cost-benefit analysis of several
alternative reforms, including removal of juvenile registrants,
prosecutorial discretion, and better risk assessments. The study
considered the benefits of potentially preventing a statistically
random sexually violent event, enhancing law enforcement,
and reducing inefficient expenditures. Belzer underscored
that there are complex challenges associated with measuring
risk and social well-being and that there are fiscal and human
costs to false positives (i.e., an over inclusive registry) and false
negatives (i.e., failing to identify a sexually dangerous person
who then victimizes someone in the community).
Sex offender management policies are assumed to be worth
16 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
the monetary investment to reduce recidivism, but they must
simultaneously ensure public protection and avoid violation of
human rights. Belzer found that notification requirements do
not result in net benefits, and thus recommended that policy
reform efforts should geared toward reducing fiscal and social
costs (Belzer, 2015). As Belzer (2015) highlighted, "registration
alone is unlikely to produce net social benefits…. public no-
tification is almost certainly a highly cost-ineffective way to
reduce future sex offenses" (p. 15). Resources spent on poli-
cies that overextend their reach while failing to enhance public
safety take funding away from other rehabilitation and reinte-
gration programs as well as from victim services and preven-
tion initiatives. A paradigm shift toward empirically-based sex
offender management systems might prove more cost-efficient
than current policies in achieving the important goal of pre-
venting repeat sexual violence.
What Should Registry Reform Look Like?
With over 800,000 sex offenders in an ever-growing regis-
try system, law enforcement resources become overextended
and the ability of the public to differentiate high risk offenders
is diluted. Certainly the diverse and sometimes countervailing
goals of policy need to be carefully deliberated; social reintegra-
tion needs of offenders must be balanced with victims' rights
and concerns. While community safety is paramount, sanc-
tions should be applied in a cost-effective fashion with some
discretion to fit the crime. Public registries should be reserved
for high risk sex offenders so that the public can be better in-
formed, specifically about pedophilic, predatory, repetitive or
violent sex offenders likely to commit new sex crimes. At the
same time, collateral consequences could be minimized for
lower risk offenders reintegrating into society and desiring to
become productive, law abiding citizens. These goals could be
achieved by registry reform in five major areas.
1. Juveniles Should Not be Subject to Sex Offender Registration
Offenders adjudicated as juveniles should not be placed
on registries. Only a handful of states allow exceptions for
"Romeo" offenders (those with minor "consensual" victims who
Sex Offender Registry Reform
18 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
were no more than 4-5 years younger), and children as young
as 10 years old can be found on the registries of some states.
Registration of youth contradicts the rehabilitative goals of the
juvenile justice system and what we know about neurological,
cognitive, social and psychological development of youngsters
(Chaffin, 2008; Jones, 2007; Letourneau & Miner, 2005; Parker,
2014). The obstacles to academic opportunities and subsequent
employment preclude meeting adolescents' needs in order for
them to feel invested in their futures and motivated to conform
to the rules and norms of society (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989;
Youth should not be labeled and defined for life by the
single worst decision they might have made as a teenager.
Some youth may have antisocial or sexually deviant traits, but
most are amenable to rehabilitation when the proper treatment
is offered (Letourneau & Borduin, 2008; Reitzel & Carbonell,
2006). Additionally, many delinquent youth have histories of
early adversity and maltreatment (Baglivio et al., 2014; Burton,
Duty, & Leibowitz, 2011; Topitzes, Mersky, & Reynolds, 2012),
and when a child is engaging in traumatic re-enactment as a
result of his or her own victimization, labeling him or her as a
"sex offender" can be especially injurious.
2. Registration Durations should be Guided by Research
The world's leading researchers on sex offender risk and
recidivism have been conducting longitudinal research for
over two decades and have developed, refined, and validated
actuarial risk assessment tools (such as the Static-99-R) that
demonstrate predictive ability to screen offenders into rela-
tive risk categories (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2009; Hanson
& Thornton, 1999; Hanson, Thornton, Helmus, & Babchishin,
2015; Helmus et al., 2012). We now have reliable data about
the long-term recidivism outcomes of sex offenders who have
been assessed at different levels of risk, and these data are
enormously helpful in formulating policy decisions.
Compelling evidence exists to guide registry durations
by looking at the longitudinal patterns of post-conviction of-
fending (Hanson et al., 2014; Harris & Hanson, 2012). Low
risk sex offenders are less likely to be arrested for subsequent
sex crimes than general criminal offenders. After 10 years,
moderate risk sex offenders reach recidivism rates comparable
to general criminal offenders, and after 16 years, even high risk
sex offenders are no more likely to be arrested for a new sexual
crime than an offender with no prior sex crime history. Thus,
it is unlikely that registration periods beyond 20 years (at the
longest) provide added value, even for high risk offenders.
Lifetime registration requirements contribute to an inef-
ficient distribution of resources with perhaps little benefit to
community safety, and they contradict research indicating that
risk declines with age for all criminals and that sex offense re-
cidivism is especially rare with advanced age (Hanson, 2002;
Helmus, Thornton, Hanson, & Babchishin, 2011; Thornton,
2006). Over time, the sex offender population will contain a
substantial proportion of elderly, infirm, and incapacitated in-
dividuals who pose virtually no risk for crimes of any sort.
Furthermore, registration durations of 25 years to life con-
tradict empirical evidence that risk declines significantly as
offenders spend longer time in the community offense-free
(Hanson et al., 2014; Harris & Hanson, 2012; Harris, Phenix,
Hanson, & Thornton, 2003).
We know that those with prior sex crimes are already recid-
ivists, and are thus at increased risk for new sex crime arrests.
We know that child molesters of boy victims and rapists of
adults are at highest risk for repeating their behavior, and that
rapists are more likely to injure their victims and to use force or
weapons (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Harris & Hanson,
2004). Non-contact offenders, such as exhibitionists, tend to
be compulsive and repetitive but typically tend not to engage
in contact crimes (Hanson & Thornton, 1999), and child por-
nography possessors are among those at lowest risk for future
child molestation offenses (Eke, Seto, & Williams, 2011). We
know that sexually-motivated stranger abductions—though
they've fueled SORN policy development—are exceedingly
rare (115 per year of children and 332 per year total) (Kessler,
2015) and that about 15% of such perpetrators were registered
as sex offenders at the time of the crime (National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children, 2015b).
These data provide persuasive guiding principles for reg-
istration duration policies. Classification procedures should
utilize validated risk assessment tools and consider risk
Sex Offender Registry Reform
20 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
factors empirically associated with recidivism. For lower and
moderate risk offenders, 10 years duration provides sufficient
time to demonstrate their post-conviction patterns of recidi-
vism. Those with pre-pubescent victims or who used force
or physical violence when committing their crimes should be
subject to closer scrutiny. Lifetime registration carries with it
an implication that individuals are beyond redemption, and
therefore, if used, should be reserved for repeat offenders.
3. Procedures for Relief and Removal from Registries should be
Few states offer any procedures for registry removal, and
federal guidelines mandate registration of 25 years to life for
all felony registrants. States should create a mechanism for
RSOs to petition for relief from registration. Removal criteria
should reflect evidence accumulated through scientific study,
including that outlined above. For instance, research suggests
that offenders who are not rearrested for a new sex crime
within the first 5 years following their conviction are progres-
sively less likely to sexually recidivate the longer they remain
in the community offense-free (Hanson et al., 2014; Harris &
Hanson, 2012; Harris et al., 2003). Therefore, after five years
in the community without a new offense, lower risk offenders
should be permitted to request removal. Repeat sex offenders
have much higher recidivism rates than first-time offenders,
and anyone with more than one sex offense conviction should
not be considered for early removal from a registry. The data
discussed in the recommendations for durations is useful to
provide guidance for relief procedures.
Offenders age 25 or under whose statutory offenses were
motivated not by sexual deviance or coercive tendencies, but
by poor judgment or youthful imprudence (sometimes re-
ferred to as "Romeo" offenders), should be removed if they are
deemed low risk and demonstrate no evidence of other sexual
deviance or antisocial orientation. Clearly, statutory offenders
are a stark contrast to the types of predatory, violent or pedo-
philic sexual criminals who were envisioned when registries
were created. As well, sex offenders who are elderly, infirm, or
otherwise incapacitated should be removed from the registry,
as they are likely to pose little risk. The restrictions associated
with registration can preclude sick offenders from residing in
nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or homeless shelters,
denying them needed medical care and accommodations that
ensure healthy living.
A final consideration is the influence of sex offender treat-
ment. Research indicates that sex offenders who successfully
complete specialized treatment are at substantially lower risk
to recidivate with a future sex crime than those who have not
completed treatment (Hanson, Bourgon, Helmus, & Hodgson,
2009; Hanson et al., 2002; Losel & Schmucker, 2005; Schmucker
& Lösel, 2015). In most states, sex offenders residing in the
community are required to attend treatment programs as part
of their probation or parole conditions. Treatment addresses
the risk factors and psychosocial needs unique to each indi-
vidual, including self-regulation difficulties, intimacy deficits,
deviant sexual interests, criminal attitudes, impaired empathy,
and co-morbid symptoms such as substance abuse, anxiety, or
depression (Andrews & Bonta, 2007, 2010; Yates, Prescott, &
Ward, 2010). Because many criminal offenders were victims
of child maltreatment and family dysfunction themselves,
trauma-informed interventions are an important component
of rehabilitation (Levenson, Willis, & Prescott, 2014; Miller &
Najavits, 2012). When sex offenders are empowered to under-
stand and change their maladaptive relational styles to better
meet emotional needs in healthy, non-victimizing ways, re-of-
fense risk can be mitigated. Sex offenders who complete treat-
ment should be allowed to seek relief from registration duties.
4. Discretion should be Returned to Judges
Mandatory offense-based registration schemes have
removed discretion from judges. According to the Adam
Walsh Act, and SORN laws in most states, if an individual
is convicted of certain statutes, registration requirements au-
tomatically apply. Few alternatives are available for judicial
actors, and few (if any) remedies for relief are available for of-
fenders once registered. It is noteworthy that several research
studies have found that AWA offense-based tiers are poor in-
dicators of risk or recidivism, and that empirically derived as-
sessment protocols are more accurate in screening RSOs into
relative risk categories and predicting recidivism (Freeman &
Sandler, 2010; Zgoba et al., 2015). Furthermore, many of the
Sex Offender Registry Reform 21
22 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
states that elected not to implement AWA (even while facing
funding penalties) cited, as a rationale, that their own state
systems were more evidence-based, effective, and efficient
for identifying and managing risk (Harris, 2011; Harris &
The pre-sentencing use of empirically-based risk assess-
ments based on factors known to correlate with recidivism can
assist fact-finders and advocates to identify those who pose
the greatest threat to public safety, whereby individualized
case-management decisions can be made according to objec-
tively defined criteria that consider the characteristics of the
offender and his criminal history. The assessment should eval-
uate static and dynamic risk factors associated with recidivism
and determine whether the subject meets criteria for a para-
philic or personality disorder that renders him likely to act
on deviant sexual impulses (Doren, 2002; Hanson & Morton-
Bourgon, 2005, 2009; Seto, 2008). Risk assessment tools such
as the Static-99R are designed for inter-disciplinary use with
minimal training, and psychosexual assessments provided
by clinicians with special expertise in this area could be very
helpful in pre-sentencing decision-making. Some discretion
should be afforded to judges in decisions about registration
requirements, and in some cases, diversion programs would
be appropriate. The U.S. D. O. J. SMART Office recommends
that management strategies and treatment plans be tailored to
match each sex offender's risk level and criminogenic needs,
and they advise using science-based, actuarial methods for as-
sessing risk, along with specialized supervision with a reha-
bilitative component (Lobanov-Rostovsky, 2015).
5. Residence Restrictions should be Abolished
Residence restrictions demonstrate no evidence of pre-
venting recidivistic sex crimes. It is clear that they diminish
housing availability and increase the likelihood of transience
and homelessness (Levenson et al., 2015). Housing instability
exacerbates risk factors for recidivism and therefore residence
restrictions create more problems than they solve. In fact, the
U.S. D.O.J. SMART Office recommends against residence re-
strictions (Lobanov-Rostovsky, 2015), and a grand challenge
for social work is to end homelessness (Henwood et al., 2015).
Sex offenders do not abuse children because they live near
schools or parks; rather, they create opportunities for sexual
molestation by cultivating relationships of trust or author-
ity with children and their families (Colombino, Mercado,
Levenson, & Jeglic, 2011; Duwe, Donnay, & Tewksbury, 2008;
Mogavero & Kennedy, 2015; Zandbergen, Levenson, & Hart,
2010). There is no evidence that residential proximity to a
school is a risk factor for recidivism, or that housing restric-
tion laws prevent reoffending (Duwe et al., 2008; Huebner
et al., 2014; Rydberg, Grommon, Huebner, & Bynum, 2014;
Socia, 2014; Zandbergen et al., 2010). Some researchers have
argued that policies restricting where sex offenders live, rather
than where they go and what they do, ignore empirical evi-
dence and misdirect prevention strategies (Colombino et al.,
2011). Though ostensibly logical, they regulate only where
sex offenders sleep at night and do nothing to prevent sex of-
fenders from visiting child-oriented venues during the day.
Alternatives such as child safety zones, which do exist in some
states and prohibit sex offenders from loitering within close
proximity to child-oriented sites, are better designed to ac-
complish the goal of reducing sex offenders' access to children
without compromising their housing needs (Broward County
Commission, 2009; Colombino et al., 2011).
Homeless sex offenders are most likely to be found in
metropolitan areas with higher housing costs and more ex-
tensive SORR laws, facilitating elevated levels of sex offender
homelessness (Levenson et al., 2015). Treatment providers and
probation officers observe that housing problems disrupt sta-
bility and exacerbate the psychosocial problems that impede
successful reintegration and contribute to risk for criminal be-
havior and non-compliance. In the absence of evidence dem-
onstrating effectiveness of residence restrictions in protecting
children, preventing sexual violence, or reducing recidivism,
such laws hinder rather than advance efforts toward child pro-
tection and community safety goals.
Implications for Social Work and Social Justice
The social experiment of sex offender registries has not
been as successful as expected. The good news is that a more
Sex Offender Registry Reform 23
vociferous public dialogue about sexual assault is finally
leading to improved responses to sex crimes, and we are now
taking them more seriously. Though we still have a long way
to go in changing the culture that promotes objectification,
sexualization, and exploitation, children and adult victims are
more apt to be believed, services have improved, and survi-
vors have fewer obstacles when seeking justice. On the other
hand, the consensus of research about SORN policies dem-
onstrates weak (if any) effects on recidivism. The collateral
consequences to offenders and their families exacerbate the
very factors highlighted by criminologists as increasing risk
of recidivism. And registries—which were intended to help
police, concerned citizens, and parents prevent victimization
by listing predatory, violent, repetitive, and pedophilic offend-
ers who pose a true threat to our communities—now contain
so many individuals that the ability to identify truly danger-
ous persons is significantly compromised. The NASW code of
ethics (2008) requires social workers to advocate for practices
and policies that are informed by empirical literature.
Sexual victimization is an egregious act, and preventing
sexual violence is an important goal. Indeed, the response
to sex offenders over the past 20 years sends an important
message of zero tolerance for sexual assault. Sex offender
management laws have been passed, however, with little an-
ticipation of the consequences they might bring, and with little
concern for those affected. Sociologist Robert Merton warned
nearly a century ago that the unforeseen negative consequenc-
es of well-intended policies passed in response to a perceived
threat may outweigh their benefits (Merton, 1936).
American social policies historically have been reactive
to problems of child maltreatment, strongly emphasizing the
role of offender punishment and child placement rather than
primary prevention. There is a compelling body of research
indicating that children who experience early adversity are
at increased risk for poly-victimization and subsequently for
complex and pervasive trauma symptoms, as well as other
medical and psychosocial maladies (Cloitre et al., 2009; Felitti
et al., 1998; Finkelhor, Turner, Hamby, & Ormrod, 2011; Larkin,
Felitti, & Anda, 2014). Children who experience chronic mal-
treatment and family dysfunction are at higher risk than
24 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
Sex Offender Registry Reform
non-abused youngsters to become the addicts and criminal
offenders of the future (Baglivio et al., 2014; DeHart, 2009;
Harlow, 1999; Mersky, Topitzes, & Reynolds, 2012; Topitzes et
al., 2012; Widom & Maxfield, 2001).
There is little resistance to funding criminal justice initia-
tives, yet prevention programs and social services are general-
ly among the first to be cut from American legislative budgets,
even though they have demonstrated that behavioral health
problems can be averted (Hawkins et al., 2015). Consistent
with the social work grand challenge of prevention, invest-
ing in a comprehensive array of early intervention services
for abused children and at-risk families is an important step
in halting the intergenerational cycle of interpersonal violence
in our communities (Anda, Butchart, Felitti, & Brown, 2010;
Hawkins et al., 2015; Larkin et al., 2014).
Laws are likely to be most successful when they incorpo-
rate scientific data into their development and implementa-
tion. A more reasoned approach (Tabachnick & Klein, 2011) to
sex offender management policies would utilize empirically-
derived risk assessment tools to create classification systems
that apply more aggressive monitoring and tighter restrictions
to those RSOs who pose the greatest threat to public safety. In
this way, a more cost-effective allocation of fiscal and person-
nel resources could be achieved. As well, by tailoring applica-
tion of these laws to risks and needs, labeling effects could be
minimized and sex offenders could be better enabled to engage
in law-abiding and prosocial lifestyles. Most sex offenders will
ultimately be returned to the community, and when they are,
it behooves us to facilitate a reintegrative and rehabilitative ap-
proach that relies on research to inform community protection
strategies. After all, when people have nothing to lose, they
begin to behave accordingly.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld sex offender registration
laws in two cases in 2003, opining that such laws were regu-
latory but not punitive and therefore did not violate ex post
facto protections, and that they did not violate rights to privacy
because the information contained on registries was already
publicly available in court records ("Connecticut Dept. of Public
Safety," 2003; "Smith v. Doe," 2003). Much has changed in the
intervening years, however, as ubiquitous access to online
registries has empowered a new scarlet letter (Levenson, 2007).
Other scholars describe how “egregious misinformation” (p.
1), misrepresention of data, and sometimes blatant inaccura-
cies have been extremely influential in shaping sex offender
public policy (Ackerman & Burns, 2016). It may be time to re-
visit the constitutional and human rights injustices of SORN.
The innumerable collateral sanctions now associated with
registration status include housing restrictions, employment
barriers, banishment from educational facilities, exclusion
from social media, and even limits on participating in holiday
festivities such as trick-or-treating. The new International
Megan's Law, signed by President Obama in early 2016, will
require a special designation posted on the passport cover of
any registered person—the first of its kind in America. Some
argue that these civil sanctions have become punitive, as they
severely interfere with the ability of many RSOs to build mean-
ingful and lawful lives post-conviction, even when evidence of
continued criminal intent or behavior is absent. Legal schol-
ars (Ellman & Ellman, 2015) have opined that the Supreme
Court's 2003 decision was disturbingly flawed, relying on false
facts and misrepresentation of the science on which the deci-
sion was grounded, "infecting an entire field of law" (p. 1) and
transforming political rhetoric into "definitive studies offered
to justify law and policy, while real studies by real scientists go
unnoticed" (p. 11).
If social workers believe in social justice, we cannot pick
and choose to whom it applies. The racial and economic dis-
parities rampant throughout the criminal justice system are
seen in sex offender sentencing, management, and registration
schemes as well. The grand challenge of social justice requires
us to step forward and speak on behalf of those without a voice,
especially those most marginalized in our communities—and
these include criminal offenders. Pettus-Davis and Epperson
(2015, p. 4) challenged social workers to find "proactive, trans-
disciplinary, and empirically driven" solutions to the criminal
justice system, adding that we are well positioned to address
this challenge, due to our long history of advocating for social
reform and our commitment to eradicating social injustices.
The goals of sex offender registries are certainly laudable,
but the quest for public safety can come at a cost of human
26 Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare
Sex Offender Registry Reform 27
rights and social justice. It is clear that sex offender registries
are popular with the public and with politicians and that they
are here to stay. But sexual violence prevention advocates
must acknowledge the fiscal and social costs of a system that
is overly-inclusive and over-burdened. Most sex offenders do
not fit the stereotype of the monster we imagine. Some are re-
petitively violent or sexually deviant and likely to reoffend,
but most pose low risk and show genuine remorse and a desire
to rehabilitate themselves. It is time for a public dialogue that
can speak honestly and directly about the simultaneous need
for offender accountability and retribution for victims, while
acknowledging that second chances are possible.
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