Sex offender registries, and other f’ed up ideas

Sex offender lobbies (unpaid) for relaxed registration laws. Arrested for not registering his new “job.”

A registered sex offender in Iowa (he had relations with a thirteen-year-old when he was 18: charged as “lascivious acts,” so probably short of intercourse) is lobbying for a bill that would allow people in his position to get free of lifetime registration requirements. He registered as a lobbyist, even though no one is paying him to lobby. So someone called the cops, who arrested him for failing to register the new job he didn’t have. That led him to be fired from the actual job he did have.

Josh Barrow Tweets, “”Someday we’re going to look back on sex-offender registries as a very silly idea.” Why wait? The concept isn’t obviously wrong, but – as this case illustrates – the implementation is usually beyond stupid. Note that public urination can be charged as “indecent exposure,” which is generally one of the sex-registry offenses.

In a sane world, the prosecution would have to ask for registration as part of the sentencing process, and the judge would have to make an individualized determination, reveiewable ever three years, that registration was necessary.

No, there’s nothing innocent or romantic about “Romeo and Juliet.” Eighteen-year-olds ought to act their age, and keep their mitts off thirteen-year-olds, and if they don’t keep their mitts off they should get hammered for it. But punishments should be front-loaded, not back-loaded. Unless there’s a reason to think this guy still has “short eyes,” let him get on with his life.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

31 thoughts on “Sex offender registries, and other f’ed up ideas”

  1. I was recently on a grand jury where several people were indicted for failing to complete their annual sex offender reregistration, which involves stopping by the local police station and stating that they still live at their address. Unlike every single other thing in the world that the government requires you to do annually (taxes, drivers license, etc.), the government here doesn’t send sex offenders a postcard or an email or anything to remind them when it’s time to reregister. They just wait for them to forget and indict. Seems pointlessly cruel.

  2. Megan’s Law was bad in theory and has been disastrous in practice. The vilification of sex offenders has resulted in murders, suicides, poverty, homelessness and misery for offenders and their families and a fortune in lost tax revenues for the rest of us. It ought to be stopped immediately.

  3. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, one of the reasons that there is so little discretion in these post hoc registration statutes (not just for sex offenders) is reaction to mistakes, misuse of discretion by prosecutors, and plea bargains. Consider, for a moment, a hypothetical date-rape involving a hypothetical offspring of a politically/financially powerful person. There’s a decent chance that this particular miscreant would not be identically charged as would a schmuck from East Oakland; there’s a more than decent chance that this particular miscreant would be allowed to plead to a lower-level offense, such as “lascivious acts”, rather than “criminal sexual assault”. From the perspective of those who are (understandably!) victim-and-prevention focused, none of those details do, or should, matter; this is a person who needs to be watched.

    The problem, of course, is that the particular registration mechanisms chosen do/enable too much ineffective watching and not enough effective watching… and, ironically enough, the way these statutes end up getting used (e.g., preventing mentally ill registrants from living close enough to the services they need to avoid recidivism because somebody has decided to put a for-profit daycare center in that zone) is too often counterproductive.

    1. C.E. Petit’s argument is precisely the one used for federal sentencing guidelines, and was precisely the argument that convinced liberals to go along with them. It’s also the argument used for mandatory minimums, although liberals were never confused by this one.

      The argument is structurally sound, but empirically weak. Such mandatory rules merely shift discretion from a court (which operates in the open) to a prosecutor’s office, which does not. Powerful people can transact around rigid rules. In a world of mandatory registry, C.E. Petit’s hypothetical date-rape would likely be pled down to simple assault without the sex, plus generous monetary compensation to the victim. Depending, of course, if it could be kept out of the press.

      1. hi Ebbie!

        In the world of mandatory registry where I live (CA), I would hope that part of a prosecutor’s decision on what plea to accept would be this question of registry. Getting rid of the sex part of the offense kind of gets rid of most of it. That ought not to be done lightly, though I agree with you that powerful people will always try to get their thumb on that scale one way or another.

        But I still read in the paper about people with histories of multiple sexual offenses, and I wonder why. Seems to me, two should be the highest number that ever occurs. Meanwhile, we still put prostitutes in jail. For no reason. So I think Petit has a point. As does Mark, about how nonsensically the registries are run.

      2. To be excrutiatingly clear on one point:

        I’m explaining the mindset and rationale here because I think I understand it. I think it profoundly wrong, but the first step toward explaining why it is wrong is understanding its origin.

    2. Even without this problem, I would have honestly never considered looking up a potential date in a sex offender database to be a viable strategy of protecting myself. Date rapes are rarely reported and notoriously difficult to prosecute.

  4. The underlying problem seems to be, as Bruce Schneier has noted, that a great many people have a tendency to misappreciate risks. In particular, they overestimate rare risks and underestimate common risks. Thus, we have people worrying a lot about sex offenders or terrorist attacks, but little about car accidents or slipping in the shower. Worse, they tend to champion ineffective policies as a result.

    As the mother of two little girls, sex offenders actually rank fairly low on my list of risks that they face (though higher than being struck by lightning), and insofar as they pose one, I do not consider sex offender registries to be a particularly useful risk management strategy [1]. My younger daughter doesn’t go to school yet, and as far as the older one is concerned, I’m more worried (statistically) about cars and bullies than child molesters. But I’m not going to fight these risks by wrapping them in cotton wool; I’m teaching them about risks and general risk management strategies and acting responsibly; I’m teaching them that I am trusting them and they can trust me and that I won’t betray their trust, so they aren’t afraid to share thoughts and observations with me that they should. I cannot watch over them 24/7 forever, and I don’t want to raise them to become 18-year old toddlers who still require constant babysitting. If either of them were to engage in a relationship at 13 years of age with an 18-year old without my knowledge, I’d be more worried about what that said about my parenting skills. And I would be surprised to find out that statistically there’s a higher probability that one of your children will get end up in a sex-offender registry because he or she did something stupid, but forgivable, as a teenager (such as Wendy Whitaker in the Economist article) than that one of them will be protected from sexual assault or rape as a result. Especially in states with outdated sex laws [2].

    [1] Which does not mean that keeping track of dangerous offenders, sexual or otherwise, with risk of recidivism is necessarily a bad idea, but that’s a somewhat different concept. Plus, it needs to be armed with safeguards against abuse.
    [2] I keep remembering that adultery is still a felony in Michigan.

    1. Cotton wool? That sounds like something evil and banned, like fornication [Leviticus (19:19) or Deuteronomy (22:11)]!

      That you would even imagine such a vile combination, even to claim that you would reject it, suggests that Satan has already sunk his vile claws deep into your soul.


      (Sorry, it’s been a long, slow day).

    2. While I don’t advocate the registry I do have to ask why child molestation is not on your radar. Your daughters have a 25% chance in being sexually assaulted by their 18th birthday…much more likely than a serious car accident and just as alarming as bullies. The registry is not the only tool to use to protect them but there are certainly a myriad of prevention methods that can be taken and I do hope you are aware of them. It’s also more than having trust between you and your daughters but teaching them healthy boundaries and to trust their instincts. Also 90% of victims know their abuser and many are blood related.

      1. It’s not that I don’t consider sexual assault a risk (in fact, I consider it a strong likelihood that any woman will experience some form at some time in her life); it’s that I consider registered sex offenders to be a pretty minor risk, statistically (that’s why I am talking sex offender registries being primarily about assuaging vague fears created by newspaper stories). If, ten years from now, my older daughter goes out on a date with a boy who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “no”, a sex offender registry is unlikely to help her. Obviously, I’ll teach her about how to minimize the risk of date rape and rape in general (to the extent possible). She’ll also learn to avoid dark alleyways (though as a general way of crime prevention, and not specific to rape). This is what I mean by risk management, which is a lot more general than peeking at sex offender registries. This is about children learning to manage their personal safety (with the goal of being able to do so fully independently eventually), because they can’t depend on their parents forever. Being able to evaluate risks, to avoid them, and to minimize the impact where they can’t be avoided completely.

        Second, there’s not a flat 25% chance. Aside from the fact that experts don’t agree on a fixed number (given that there are a lot of unknown factors), children in stable families with two parents are at considerably lower risk. They are at lower risk from family members, and they are much less likely to have the characteristics that perpetrators tend to exploit. This is also the reason why I’m teaching my daughters that they can trust me when they confide in me; my mother did the same with me, and as a result, I shared pretty much all my problems with her (and a lot of boring stuff that probably couldn’t have been particularly interesting for her). I do this so that I will learn about problems and risk factors while they are developing before they become serious (and really, I’m again more concerned about a lot of other problems than sexual abuse, such as them struggling in school) without spying on them.

        These statistics also include considerable numbers of “non-contact abuse”, such as exhibitionism, verbal sexual harrassment, or voyeurism, that you can’t realistically protect against, only deal with. (Schools can be a big problem here, but I don’t see putting my daughters in a cloistered environment with exclusive homeschooling to be a solution.) In the end, as a woman, chances are that you will have to deal with lewd comments, inappropriate touching, etc. and won’t be able to do anything about it (because you rarely can even prove it). When I was waitressing as an 18-year old, I had to deal with more than one guy trying to cop a feel; heck, I had a couple who were asking me to join them for a threesome after work (a rather uncomfortable situation, but to the best of my knowledge, they were not breaking any laws; I still asked the manager to handle their table afterwards). There’s no real effective direct protection against this “ambient” dreck other than aiming to reform how society treats women. This is again where teaching my daughters to trust me (so that I can help them) comes in.

        And yes, obviously “teaching them healthy boundaries and trusting their instincts” is important, too, but that kinda goes without saying; I really cannot do a comprehensive description of my parenting in a few paragraphs, nor do I really intend to share more details; I’m about at the maximum level that I feel comfortable with. And yes, I also know that 90% of all forms of sexual assault is committed by family members and acquaintances (as I wrote below).

        1. I agree that we should probably educate people as to the fact that a registry is not likely to protect their children. Too many pervs escape detection in the first place.

          I still think we should have them though, and I still wonder why I keep reading about serial offenders.

          Having said that, I also don’t believe in these rules about where ex cons can live. Those just don’t work, I think, and they probably make homeless shelters a lot less safe than they are now.

          1. Oops, I meant, less safe than they use to be. We are literally making some dangerous people homeless. Not smart and not nice.

          2. And the other thing is, why don’t they say, when you look it up, what the person did? Then neighbors would know, oh that was a statutory case when he was 18 and she was 16, versus, someone who messed with a pre-adolescent. Maybe that would cut down the hysteria some. Now I’m curious, maybe I’ll look up the registry.

          3. My primary problem with sex offender registries (aside from the current ones having too many problems in practice) is that we have only finite resources, and the registries so far have an extremely low return on interest, so to speak. That’s a fairly common problem where safety issues are concerned (the TSA is another prominent example). Plus, as you note, they can actually have deleterious side effects with a potential harm that may (completely or partly) offset the benefits.

            As I said, I’m not in principal opposition to a sex offender database, assuming that we can show that it is actually effective and not mostly a political placebo. Preventing recidivism is a good idea, but I have my doubts that just publishing the database and restricting where they can work and live is an effective way of accomplishing that goal. (By temperament, as you may know, I’m a small government person; that doesn’t mean that I have the religious objection against government that libertarians and some Republicans have, but it means that I think there’s only so many things that a government can do while remaining effective that its efforts need to be focused and subject to regular questions regarding its actual efficacy.)

            Then there’s the problem of who to put in such a database. There’s no easy situation such as “all violent offenders and pedophiles”. For example, teenagers in the 13-17 range may be responsible for as much as half of all cases of child molestation and a significant number of rapes. Even where it’s not a Romeo-and-Juliet type of offense, but actual sexual assault, what to do with them? This is where the type of database comes into play, too: If it’s the current “scarlet letter” version, then I see little good coming of it. For any given crime that one of them may committed and that may be prevented, you’re destroying any chance that another one of them will be rehabilitated; if it’s a database meant to provide targeted supervision, treatment, etc., then it may be sensible for it to be more inclusive.

            Sadly, I don’t have a good answer myself. That’s why we have public policy experts such as Mark to do the hard work. (It’s also why, as a computer scientist, I have a lot of respect for people working in the so-called “soft sciences”. These sciences are often “soft” and seemingly ambiguous because the questions are hard and don’t lend themselves to easy answers.)

  5. Katja – I’m inclined to think this earnest schlub in Iowa should be off the hook. I mean, he should have known better – thirteen! But it’s not a totally impossible pairing. A real relationship, well, Will and Ariel Durant. Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13 year old stayed married longer than he stayed married to anyone else, I think. Nor is a guy who couples up with a fifteen year old when nineteen particularly likely to keep cruising for fifteen-year-olds years later. I don’t see this as pedophilia, nor do I think you brand someone like this for life.

    Jesse Timmendequas, though, had two priors for sexual crimes with very young girls when he abducted, raped, and murdered Megan Kankas when in his 30s. For a lot of guys who do this sort of thing, at least from what I have read, it’s something they keep wanting to do. I think it’s reasonable for parents to want to be able to know whether someone like that is in the neighborhood. There’s some kind of a line to draw, somewhere between Timmendequas and schlub-from-Iowa. But I don’t think we should drop the registry idea entirely.

    1. Dave, I don’t disagree with either of your points. What this guy did seems to have been more in the area of criminal stupidity than premeditated evil. Punish him, yes, but I agree that he shouldn’t be “branded for life”. It flies in the face of everything we tend to say about punishment fitting the crime (specifically, the culpability principle). Nor does it appear that it does anything to improve public safety.

      As I said in my footnote, I do not think that the police should never keep records of sex offenders (or, frankly, any type of criminal). I just don’t see the current implementation accomplishing much relative to the harm it causes. The rationale for sex offender registries is presumably that in cases of child abuse about 60% of all perpetrators are known to the child, but not family (about 30% are family, 10% are strangers). So, it seems to make sense to allow parents to check for sex offenders among the people they know. But child abuse, like rape, is heavily underreported; an estimated 10% or less of cases are reported to the authorities. Of those that are reported, the majority are by individuals with no prior convictions, so they wouldn’t show up on on a sex offender registry, either.

      So, speaking as a parent, how is looking up my neighbors or a babysitter on a sex offender registry going to be effective in protecting my daughters against child abuse (right now, hypothetically — my understanding is that the UK sex offender registry can only be accessed by the police and the courts)? Would it actually help or just create a dangerous illusion of safety? It’s not that I have qualms about hurting the feelings of actual criminals (i.e., not the 18-year old guy who had completely consensual sex with his 17-year old girlfriend, but actual child molesters); my daughters’ safety — as well as that of any other children — would be more important for me. I just don’t see sex offender registries as being effective; they strike me as the law-and-order version of feel-good measures in that they seem to exist more to assuage vague fears created by newspaper stories.

      1. DAVE SCHUTZ: There are very, very, VERY few Jesse Timmendequases in this world. Yet there are over 750,000 people nationwide required to register as if there were. You stated that from what you read “it’s something they keep wanting to do”. WHAT ARE YOU READING? Not the CDCR’s 2012 Outcome Evaluation Report, which indicates reoffense rates are 1.9% (

        Not the New Jersey study ( or the Michigan one (,
        or the Colorado one, the Utah one, the Sex Offender Management Board report, etc. etc. etc.

        The public Megan’s Law registry gives parents a false sense of safety. It is documented – countrywide – that sex offenders have much lower reoffense rates than other offenders and that the media/politicians have inflated those rates enormously, to their own benefit and to OUR detriment. The VAST majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated within the child’s own family and close social circle. While parents search an online database for nearly EX offenders, real live crime is happening under their own roof. Education is the key to prevention, not a government database of people who have served their time and have a reoffense rate below 2 percent.

        1. Careful with those data. You can’t measure reoffending, only re-arrest. And for crimes as grossly under-reported as sexual offenses, that’s not a very good measure.

  6. In this state (also Iowa), if an actual child rapist isn’t caught before the statute of limitations is up (10 years after the child turns 18, or three years after a DNA match), he’s off the hook. That’s too bad, because right about the time his victims get around to remembering their own childhood abuse experience, the perp is not prosecutable, and has begun abusing the grandkids.

    And the guy who pees in an alleyway and gets caught is in the system for life.

    1. But if you’re (then-mayor of Portland, later Gov. Of Oregon) Neil Goldschmidt, you can rape a 13 year old regularly for years and the newspapers and countless pols in the know will cover up for you until the statute passes. This guy lives the rich life in France … But came back for Mark Hatfield’s funeral. Astonishingly, no one spit on him, and plenty were happy to schmooze with him.

    2. “because right about the time his victims get around to remembering their own childhood abuse experience”

      This “repressed memories” business is pretty dubious, from what I understand; Human memory doesn’t really work like that, where something happens, you forget it for a decade or two, and then, Bam! you suddenly recall what really happened. People have been locked up due to ‘repressed memories’ of events which were starkly, physically impossible. Really, it’s just our modern version of the witchcraft hysteria of previous centuries.

      The statute of limitations exists for good reason, and protecting people from somebody who had a bad dream about something that supposedly happened twenty years ago, leaving no other evidence, is one of them. (Insert obligatory Thomas Moore quote here.)

  7. These sex offender laws are, but one example, of the sadistic, malignant byproducts inherent in our political system. A guy knocking down beers in his local watering hole sees a news flash depicting a heinous act. “Lock’m up and throw away the key,” he proudly blurts out. A politician sitting nearby, ears perked up, gets an “ah-ha” moment and hears opportunity knocking. Well, you know the rest. As much as the depicted “heinous act” was a tragedy, a possibly greater, certainly longer lasting, tragedy, is that actual laws are enacted as a result of a knee-jerk, throw-away comment by a bar patron.

    How many truly horrendous laws are passed out of heartfelt concern for the safety of our citizens, and how many out of the blind ambition of some political sociopath?

    1. As a blogger here, I welcome all corrections, trivial or substantive. The great thing with blog posts as a form of writing is that you can fix a problem and improve your post by a simple update. It the correction skewers your main point, you can withdraw the whole thing. It’s a matter of judgement how much annotation the blogger needs to do. I correct my typos invisibly, points of substance with strikeouts.

  8. In my day job, I was consulted this week by a guy caught up in this nightmare. I had to tell him that his meth using sister was likely to have a better chance of being appointed as Mom’s guardian than he did, because he was on the registry for dirty pix of teen girls on his pc a long time ago. Sister has been bleeding mom dry for a while; now that her Moms dementia has progressed and she fell and broke a hip, his chances of being able to intercede on Mom’s behalf any more seem low. Mom is pushing 90. Way to go sex offender registry!

    Oh, and I once saw a guy who was being threatened with reincarceration for failing to update his registration … For moving from his one rental house to his other rental next door while he fixed up the first house (rental property owner being the only job he could get), even though he never moved his mail, and the houses were typical suburban big houses on small lots.

    Yet dick Cheney walks the Earth a free lizard person.

  9. Sex offender registries also have some really pernicious effects for jobs and housing. There’s a town nearby with a wide enough distribution of schools, playgrounds and churches that the only area registered offender can live is a few hundred yards square around the railroad tracks. Where, coincidentally, there are almost no residential buildings.

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