Why do crime registries that don’t work continue to grow?

By Emmanuel Felton . . . Bruce Armstrong says he’s a changed man. After spending 25 years in jail for killing a man during a home invasion, Armstrong is looking for a second chance: “I’m not in the lifestyle I used to be in. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’m just trying to build something up before it’s too late. I’m 55 years old and I don’t have social security, retirement, or a pension.”

While it’s difficult for most ex-felons to reintegrate into society, Armstrong’s road is particularly tough. That’s because he is required to enroll onto a registry that is, in theory, supposed to keep communities safe. But research shows that, in reality, those registries act as one more shackle around the hands of those trying to re-enter society — heightening risk factors that criminologists say only up the chances that an ex-offender will turn to criminal activity again.

J.J. Prescott, a University of Michigan law professor and a trained economist, says that unraveling registries present a difficult political problem because while the upsides are intuitive to voters, the drawbacks are far less straightforward. He explains the downsides through a behavioral economics lens.
“The deterrence of prison is reduced by the use of public registries, because they have the effect of destroying the value of being out of prison by turning people into pariahs,” Prescott says. “Prison as a threat only works if you have something to lose.”

For 10 years, while Armstrong is on Illinois’ Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry, which is available to the public online, he will face small indignities — having to show up once a year at the police station with 10 dollars for the privilege of checking in, having the cops show up at his house at any hour, embarrassing him in front of his neighbors, and having to notify the police if he plans to leave town for just a few days — as well as the larger consequences that stem from anyone being able to uncover his murder conviction with just a few keystrokes. This all wasn’t part of the deal when he was convicted in 1986.

In the same year that President Bill Clinton signed the now-much-debated crime bill of 1994 he signed the Wetterling Act. The law was named for Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped and murdered. The Wetterling Act required that every state maintain lists of people convicted of sex offenses for law enforcement agencies. That idea wasn’t particularly novel; a handful of states had been maintaining crime registries available to cops for decades. The idea was the registries would serve as a tool for police to keep an eye on particularly high-risk offenders.

The big change came in 1996 with the passage of Megan’s Law. Congress was reacting to another high-profile child abduction case. Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old, was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting young girls. Kanka’s parents argued that, had they known there was a sex offender in the neighborhood, they would have taken more steps to protect their daughter. With Megan’s Law, the federal government required every state to make their sex offender lists available to the general public or jeopardize federal funding.

In the two decades since, the idea of making information about offenders public has proven immensely popular. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that virtually all Americans — 94 percent — supported public sex offender registries and about two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t even somewhat concerned about how the public nature of registries affected those forced to sign up. With the Internet providing states with a cheap and easy way to get information into the hands of citizens, lawmakers soon found registries to be a relatively inexpensive solution to complex problems, says Amanda Agan, a Rutgers University professor who studies the economics of crime.

“These policies were well intentioned and they sounded like they might work. And on top of that they are relatively low cost,” Agan says. “But now we have all of this evidence that they just don’t work, but the problem is it’s very difficult to start pulling back. There would be a public outcry.”

Please read the full article in PacificStandard.

someone outside of NARSOL

Written by 

Occasionally we will share articles that have been published elsewhere. This is a common practice as long as only a portion of the piece is shared; a full piece is very occasionally shared with permission. In either case, the author's name and the place of original publication are displayed prominently and with links.

7 Thoughts to “Why do crime registries that don’t work continue to grow?”

  1. AvatarMaestro

    “Kanka’s parents argued that, had they known there was a sex offender in the neighborhood, they would have taken more steps to protect their daughter.”

    Typical mistake # 1) Why do you need to know that there is someone in your neighborhood that committed a sex crime in the past? That sex offender had a time in his life when he had no criminal record. So just because you don’t see anyone on a registry in YOUR neighborhood, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t SOMEONE doing something illegal right under your noses.
    So, thanks to the Kenka family (because their daughter is the only child ever in human history to be kidnapped, raped and murdered), people are so BRAIN WASHED with the idea that ONLY people on a registry are DANGEROUS. Can anyone ever throw this stupidity in their faces? Please?!

    “With Megan’s Law, the federal government required every state to make their sex offender lists available to the general public or jeopardize federal funding.”

    And this right here sounds like straight up BRIBERY. Which is illegal.

    1. AvatarRobert Columbia

      Also, what would those “more steps to protect their daughter” actually be? Start carrying a gun? Switch to carrying a more powerful gun? Strap a tracker on the child? Ask the child to read a book on safety and to not wear certain clothing? Move to northern Alaska to become nomadic whalers?

      There’s all this information posted out there that is supposedly supposed to be useful to parents, but it’s unclear what, specifically, they can do to protect against a specific registrant that they find listed, rather than just taking ordinary precautions like providing proper supervision and education.

      If I feel the need to protect my family from not more than two persons convicted of not more than two sexual offenses committed more than 10 years ago but don’t want to go overboard/obsessive compulsive and implement protectionary measures that are only needed when dealing with people convicted of three or more sexual offenses or when there are three or more persons in the neighborhood who have been convicted of two sexual offenses committed within the last five years, where, specifically, can I find the latest best practices in child safety for this? Is there a book? Ammo recommendations based on registrant density index? Strength of GPS monitor to place on child based on number of recidivists within 30 miles of home and school? Appropriate skirt length calculator based on number of offenders in tri-county area at Tier 2 or above? With all the supposed sex offender research that is coming out every year, we should at least are the beginnings of such a system. Do we?

      What we do find are vague “omg offender protect yr kidz!!11!one” warnings that increase fear and tend not to provide helpful information.

    2. AvatarBill

      Robert c
      You are right! The problem is when good people do not take a stand together, evil rules! Once an image is portrayed it is very difficult to change! We know with a clear concious and pure hart the law is wrong and is violating our rights to live free in society! Question! Are you ready to do something about it?

  2. AvatarNH Registrant

    As I’ve said many times, the Registry is a money maker for not only the state, but sites like City-Data, Homefacts, and Mugshots who make money from site traffic of people looking on the registry. Then, of course, there are the Cell Phone apps which shows ANYONE a map to anyone’s home who is on the Registry. What if that person has children? Where is the outcry for THEIR safety should some idiot vigilante come calling? Oh, right, there is none.

    Also, like I said before, if the federal and state gov’ts are so concerned with the safety of children then:
    – Why are the numbers of homeless CHILDREN growing every single day?
    – Why do the state and federal gov’ts cut benefits from people for assistance? 80% of the recipients of those benefits are CHILDREN.
    – Why do the gov’ts constantly cut the budgets of schools?
    – Why does the federal gov’t give it’s blessing to carpet bomb countries knowing full well that children will be maimed or killed?

    Why, indeed?

  3. AvatarLet's be Honest

    The registries are such a money maker that FLORIDA deliberately has 10,000 and growing out of state SO’s maintained on its registry who are NOT in the state. A 5 day vacation is just the looohole needed to add a vacationer to its lifelong registry. Hence, more federal and state funding for the FDLE. I think Florida’s deceptive practice for tax dollars needs a little sunshine.

  4. AvatarMichael

    Why do crime registries that don’t work continue to grow?

    Because Americans are sheeple incapable of independent thought?

    Because representatives of the government are permitted to lie to the courts?

    Because rubes have never read 1984?


  5. AvatarMichael

    People have “stranger danger” mentalities, so they are too busy peering through their blinds at and scrutinizing their neighbors, when all along the danger was right there in the house.

    According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA), 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way; 68 percent are abused by family members.

    The best way to combat laws like these is to do it at state level are force your state legislator to stop letting the federal government strong arm them into mirroring or enforcing federal laws.


Comments are closed.