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A False Remedy for Sex Offenders

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
At age 14, J.L. impregnated his girlfriend in a consensual encounter. This was bad news on several grounds, the worst being that she was 15 months younger. Convicted of rape for having sex with a 12-year-old, he will have to register as a sex offender -- for the rest of his life.

Last month, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the verdict, while admitting it made little sense. "Application of the first-degree rape statute to the present facts does not create an unintended absurdity," the justices concluded. The absurdity must have been deliberate.

J.L. isn't the only person to be ensnared by ridiculous interpretations of laws affecting sex offenders. A Michigan man convicted in 1984 of rape was supposed to report his home address to police after getting out of prison in 2002. Being homeless, he tried to comply by providing the address of a homeless shelter where he got his meals.

Not good enough, said the Michigan Supreme Court a few weeks ago. It said he can be sent back to jail for failing to file the address of whatever spot he laid his head each night.

Sex offender registries once sounded like an urgent necessity. They came in reaction to publicized crimes in which children died at the hands of convicted sex offenders. One of the most shocking involved a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, who in 1994 was raped and strangled by a paroled child molester living across the street from her home.

New Jersey enacted "Megan's Law," subjecting sex offenders to registration and community notification, so police and citizens would be aware of known risks. Today, all 50 states maintain registries and make at least some of the information available to the public.

But this was a reasonable notion that has been damaged by indiscriminate expansion. It's one thing to notify neighbors when a serial rapist moves in. Many states, however, lump frisky teens in with violent adults. Others, reports Jacob Sullum in Reason magazine, include mopes who were caught trolling for prostitutes or urinating in public.


Some states also put broad curbs on where convicted sex offenders may live. In Miami, many of them have taken up residence under a causeway for lack of an alternative. This outcome may not warrant sympathy, but it makes it harder for police and citizens to keep tabs on them.

Such flaws would be of minimal consequence if the laws served to prevent crime. The surprising revelation is they don't.

A 2008 report funded by the Justice Department found the original Megan's Law in New Jersey to be a non-event. The policy, researchers documented, "showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses" and "has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses." The zero effect had a cost above zero -- nearly $4 million annually for the 15 counties included in the study.

A more comprehensive study was undertaken by Amanda Agan, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, and published recently in the Journal of Law and Economics. Analyzing data from across the country, she detected no tangible gains from this approach.

"Rates of sex offense do not decline after the introduction of a registry or public access to a registry via the Internet, nor do sex offenders appear to recidivate less when released into states with registries," she writes. Evidence from Washington, D.C. shows no connection between the number of sex offenders on a block and the rate of sex crimes.

That doesn't mean you and I are crazy to prefer knowing about the pedophile next door. But it suggests the information offers no actual benefit.


After all, most convicted sex offenders do not go on to be arrested for new sex offenses, and more than 90 percent of child victims are assaulted not by strangers but by relatives or other people they know.

Sex offender registries may cause parents to focus on the remote peril while ignoring the more pertinent one. And, as in the examples cited earlier, they can inflict harsh punishment that departs from common sense and does nothing for public safety.

Shielding citizens from vicious predators is unquestionably one of the central functions of any sound government. Megan's Laws were enacted in the sensible pursuit of that goal. What they offer in practice, though, is counterfeit comfort.

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