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Registering Harm: How sex offense registries fail youth and communities

September 2009:

Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law that requires states to include children as young as age 14 on registries — often for the rest of their lives — in an attempt to protect our children from sexual violence.

But the Adam Walsh Act won’t keep our children safe.

Instead, this law will consume valuable law enforcement resources, needlessly target children and families, and undermine the very purpose of the juvenile justice system. Thankfully, states can opt out of compliance with this law, and make smart investments in programs and policies that will actually protect our children and our communities.

Initially, registries were restricted to law enforcement use and were used largely to track adults who had been convicted of violent sex offenses. More recently, policymakers have expanded the scope of registries by including children on the registry, requiring registration for nonviolent offenses, and making registries available to the public in online databases. The Adam Walsh Act is a federal law that aims to further expand the breadth of registries at the state level and requires states to list all registrants on the national online database, the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry. This report documents the issues related to public safety and fiscal accountability that states should consider as they determine whether to comply with the Adam Walsh Act or otherwise expand the reach of their existing registries.

During the past two decades, sensationalized media accounts of crimes that have a sexualized component have driven policy aimed at preventing sexual violence. As a result, millions of dollars of state and federal resources support registries despite that fact that there is no evidence that public registries reduce sexual violence. What we do know, however, is that these registries consume public safety resources and may be funded at the expense of alternative approaches that research suggests actually would reduce sexual violence in our communities.

Research shows that laws that place people convicted of sex offenses on registries or that mandate other restrictions are counterproductive and may even make the problem of sexual violence worse. These laws do not deter inappropriate behavior; instead, registries can actually create more crime by alienating those on the registry from social support systems, including education, employment, and housing, that have been shown to reduce the likelihood that an individual might participate in illegal activities.

The Adam Walsh Act (AWA)* mandates the registration of children for certain sex offenses and, through coordinated state effort, the appearance of those records on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry, which is maintained by the FBI. The AWA requires registration for youth as young as age 14 despite the fact that research shows that children are very amenable to rehabilitation and that the consequences of registration are likely to undermine any rehabilitative programming available for children. In some cases, these young people will be on a public registry for the rest of their lives, which can have numerous and permanent negative effects on their lives and those of their families, including alienation from social networks, schools, and churches. The AWA purports to protect children, yet subjecting youth to these consequences fails to provide any public safety benefit and instead significantly harms youth who are forced to register.

Victims’ rights groups, organizations founded in the name of children harmed by sexual violence, treatment professionals, criminal justice reformers, and researchers have noted that sex offense registries can generate a false sense of security for people in communities and do not provide adequate information on how to protect their families from sexual offenses.

Registries have questionable — and sometimes negative — public safety outcomes for several reasons, including law enforcement’s inability to accurately track and maintain all the information required by the registries in a timely manner. Additionally, most registries indiscriminately sweep up people who pose no threat to public safety. The over-inclusiveness of a registry actually diminishes its value as a public safety tool because it becomes impossible to determine who might pose a real threat.

Furthermore, establishing and maintaining registries consumes law enforcement time and money. States can expect to spend millions of dollars fully implementing and sustaining the guidelines of the AWA, without significant federal financial assistance. Law enforcement officers who previously protected our communities are now tracking down people who fail to register, many of whom are not a threat to public safety. This gives police little time to focus on monitoring the select individuals who may be a high risk to the community. Simply put, registries divert resources from positive and effective public safety strategies that have been proven to prevent sexual violence and lower violence in communities.

However, even with enough law enforcement resources to make sure that people are registering accurately and often, there is a distinct lack of evidence that supports the notion that registries make us safer. In fact, the opposite may be true. Continued investments in registries put our families in danger with short-sighted policies that alienate people who are trying to safely re-enter the community. We owe it to our children and to our communities to implement sound public safety strategies based on evidence, not media-created hype.

This report explores the potential impact that compliance with the Adam Walsh Act will have on states, communities, and youth, who are targeted by the new legislation. The report includes the following findings:

For the remainder of this report: by The Justice Policy Institute would like to thank Sarah Bryer, Nicole Pittman, Tara Andrews, and Sarah Tofte for their invaluable suggestions, expertise, and support. Special thanks to Russell Estes and Scott Phillips at the Southern Poverty Law
Center for their creativity in the design of the report. JPI staff includes Sheila Bedi, Debra Glapion, LaWanda Johnson, Laura Jones, Amanda Petteruti, Emily Sydnor, and Nastassia Walsh.

This report would not have been possible without the generous support of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Public Welfare Foundation, and Open Society Institute.

In every state, the first-year cost of implementing the Adam Walsh Act outweighs the cost of losing 10 percent of the state’s Byrne grant money.*

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