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The Case Against Public Sex Offender Registries

by Juli Freedman

Bad Habits Editor

[originally published May 20, 2022]


For a campus whose leftist presence seems highly critical of the criminal justice system and police surveillance, why does the practice of utilizing an archaic, invasive, faulty technology seem to be an almost nonpartisan issue, and one defended without any real look into its consequences? When presenting this idea to advocate for the outlawing of public registries in my Cultures of Surveillance class and in the The Grape writers room, there is a kind of palpable tension. I get it, it’s a touchy topic. To want to repeal this system seems like a betrayal to survivors and what will keep them safe. Most of the criticism of the registry I have seen in the media is from those like Brock Turner’s mother, whose motivations stem from wanting to salvage her son’s reputation. It is difficult to find any kind of productive conversation about these public registries, but if you allow me, I want to wrestle with this topic from a viewpoint that prioritizes survivor safety and transformative justice.

The Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Regisration Act was the first federal mandate that required a statewide database of sex offenders was passed by U.S. Congress in 1994, which required that the demographic information, place of residence , and the description of offense or offenses be available to law enforcement in order to monitor registered sex offenders (RSOs). In 1996, Megan’s Law was an amendment to the Wetterling Act which mandated that states were now required to make registration status information publicly available. Both the Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law were named after high-profile child abduction cases wherein a child was abused by a stranger, which sparked a moral panic around “stranger danger”. The reasoning behind Megan’s Law was that if the public was aware of who in their neighborhood has committed past cases of sexual offenses, then they could protect their unsuspecting children from registered sex offenders believed to have high recidivism rates. While this may be a solution if most sexual abuse cases were caused by a registered sex offender whom the child did not know beforehand, or if registered sex offenders had unusally high recidivism rates, this assumption does not align with the data.

According to studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Youth and Families in 2018, 77.5% of cases of maltreatment against children is perpetrated by the child’s parents, with a 3.7% of perpetrators having a relationship marked “other” to their victim. In cases of sexual abuse, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center, the trend remains the same: it is more likely that a child will be abused by someone they already know. The presumption that sex offenders have higher recidivism rates stems from faulty essentialist ideas rather than the fact that “significantly, virtually every class of offenders has a higher rate of recidivism than sex offenders” (Dr. Diana Rickard in Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control). In fact, in a 2011 study following the recidivism rates impacted by both registration and notification laws, researchers found that while there are benefits to the reporting and registering of sex offenders to local authorities, there is an increase in “recidivism among registered offenders, perhaps because of the social and financial costs associated with the public release of their criminal history and personal information.”

So who are there registries protecting? Online public registries are considered to fall under the scope of “Crime Control Theater” (CCT). Much like you hear TSA referred to as “security theater,” CCT refers to technologies that only provide an illusion of safety to combat issues that require more complex and nuanced approaches. While the registries may combat some moral panic, by providing online registries as the sole solution to child sexual abuse, we are letting vulnerable populations down. If the money that was funneled into keeping these websites running was redistributed to sexual education efforts in elementary schools that would focus on consent, bodily autonomy, and warning signs of abuse, we may actually see a decrease in cases of long-term sexual abuse. If children had an understanding of abuse, they may feel more inclined to confide in their teachers or another adult in order to receive protection. But again, this is not an issue with one solution.

Everyone who appears on the public sex offender registry has already served their time and have completed or going to complete mandated therapy, so why is it just sex offenders out of all offenders that have to have their picture, address, and criminal history displayed in one place? If we think about the state of our justice system, the difference between who appears on the registry and who gets a slap on the wrist can come down to racist, classist, and/or homophobic biases of the judge. Not everyone who appears on the registry has actually committed the crime they are guilty of whether they did not commit a crime at all or were manipulated into taking a plea deal which included crimes that they did not commit.

The public registry’s negative consequences of stunting community reintegration and heightened recidivism, outweigh the promise of community safety—which it does not sufficiently achieve—that are rooted in stigma, false perceptions of recidivism rates, and systemic oppression. It is time to abolish it.

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