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Follow the evidence when evaluating sex offender registries

To many, sex offender registries seem like a good way to prevent people from committing repeat sex offenses, thereby keeping the public safer.

Many believe that people who have committed sex offenses in the past are much more likely to commit them in the future. However punitive and life-altering it may be to be placed on a sex offender registry, they say, registries are the best way to keep the public safe from sex offenses. Over time, the theory goes, sex offenses should go down overall as more and more offenders are placed on the registry.

Unfortunately, the evidence has not borne out these hopes. There's very little evidence that sex offender registries work at all.

For one thing, only about 8% of those convicted of a sex offense go on to reoffend within five years. And, it turns out, decades after the passage of most registries, an estimated 95% of sex offenses are still committed by people who aren't on the registry.

Furthermore, over 80% of sex offenses against children are committed by someone the victim knows well, such as a family member, teacher or coach, as opposed to a stranger. Most sex offenses against adults are also committed by people known to the victims.

"The research that we have shows that there is very little evidence registries help to reduce sex crimes," criminology professor Kelly Socia told The Appeal. "It's not just that they aren't preventing sex crimes but they are not reducing sex crimes at all."

5 cases in Pennsylvania will test the constitutional reach of the registry

Since its passage in 1996, more than 20,000 people have been placed on Pennsylvania's sex offender registry. Over 200 of these committed their offenses when they were minors.

There are currently five cases before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that could rein in the use of registries on constitutional grounds. One seeks, for example, to limit the use of lifetime registration to adult offenders instead of allowing teenagers or children to be branded for life after a youthful mistake. Another argues that the state's civil commitment law, which allows people to be held beyond their criminal sentences, should apply only to adult offenders.

Yet Pennsylvania's attorney general is fighting hard against what seem like reasonable reforms. In an opinion piece in December, he asserted that the court might "dismantle" the registry and "put the public at risk."

We need to move away from fear-mongering about sex offenders and look at the science. Sex offender registration is extremely punitive, and it is far too often used against people who pose little or no danger. We will watch for developments in these cases.

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