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Where’s the Harm in Sex Offender Registration Laws?

By Alexandra Monaco

For a moment, let’s imagine that you have just been sentenced to 10 years in jail. You serve your time and are then released. Being a formerly incarcerated individual, you lack strong social ties or relationships, cannot find a job due to your record or label as an “ex-convict”, often cannot return to formal education (high school, college, professional education), you are now barred from financial aid, often experience homelessness, and have the criminal justice system breathing down your neck through your parole or probation officer.

Now, let’s consider that your charge was for a sex offense. In addition to the above, you also have to register as a sex offender, which often leads to more challenges. What exactly does this entail, though? You are bound by Sex Offender Registration and Notification (SORN) Laws, which require you to publicly register as a sex offender, restrict where you can live and work, require that you notify your neighbors that you have a sex offense charge, and control who you can and cannot interact with (including your family and sometimes your children). According to Dayton Daily News, you and 17,000 other people in the state of Ohio are affected by these SORN laws.

SORN laws are controversial and difficult to understand. These laws were created to help keep the public informed and safe. While this goal is important and admirable, we must think critically about the effectiveness and impact of these laws. Is the public actually safer because of these laws? Do they truly help curb repeat offending? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Or, are they helping to perpetuate the barriers discussed above?

To put it simply, no. There is a vast body of research about the effectiveness and consequences of SORN laws that suggest that the public is minimally affected by these laws. There is little evidence that there are any lasting positive effects of these laws. In fact, some scholars suggest that communities experience a false sense of security because they focus on “stranger danger”, which accounts for a very small percentage of sex offenses. Thus, communities are prepared for a crime that will likely not occur in their neighborhoods.

Further, according to one study published in 2018 by Jill Levenson, there is no evidence that residence restrictions prevent sex crimes, or that registered sex offenders who live closer to child-oriented locations (e.g., schools, playgrounds, or bus stops) are more likely to reoffend than those who live farther away.

In fact, another study from a researcher at Barry University stated that few people seem to search registries on a regular basis. When they do, even fewer take preventative measures after viewing a registration website—even if they find someone who is registered in their neighborhood. Not only are these laws largely ineffective, it seems people are not taking advantage of them or taking them very seriously.

All of these research findings suggest that SORN laws are largely ineffective at “protecting the public” and do not prevent repeat offending, either. The general public is often afraid of the idea that people labeled as “sex offenders” are more likely to become repeat offenders than other types of offenders. However, according to a researcher at Barry University, research has consistently determined that “sex offense recidivism rates are lower than generally assumed, averaging between 5% and 15% across studies.” This is lower than most other types of offenses.

In addition to being largely ineffective, these laws make it incredibly difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to become reintegrated into society after their incarceration. The limitations placed on people that have to register as a sex offender are vast. Finding a job after incarceration is even more difficult for this population, as they are required to maintain a certain distance from schools, playgrounds, bus stops, and other child-oriented places. Housing restrictions and limited employment opportunities often push this population into homelessness. One man was even prohibited from living with his own children due to his criminal history. For the population of people that were charged with sex offenses, their imprisonment does not end once they are released from jail or prison.

Knowing that SORN laws are largely ineffective and create a lasting negative impact for those intertwined in them, it is time for these laws to be redrafted to become more efficient, effective, and considerate.

To learn more about the laws in your state, and to help change them, please call or local officials and state legislators. Changes in laws and practices like these begin with individuals and communities. Unfortunately, these are conversations that most people feel uncomfortable having. Let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable and make a change.

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