Public Crime Registries Rarely Work, So Why Do They Continue to Grow?

What started as a system to track sex-offenders has turned into a labyrinthine way of keeping surveillance on former convicts.
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Bruce Armstrong says he’s a changed man. After spending 25 years in jail for killing a man during a home invasion, Armstrong is looking for a second chance: “I’m not in the lifestyle I used to be in. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’m just trying to build something up before it’s too late. I’m 55 years old and I don’t have social security, retirement, or a pension.”

While it’s difficult for most ex-felons to reintegrate into society, Armstrong’s road is particularly tough. That’s because he is required to enroll onto a registry that is, in theory, supposed to keep communities safe. But research shows that, in reality, those registries act as one more shackle around the hands of those trying to re-enter society — heightening risk factors that criminologists say only up the chances that an ex-offender will turn to criminal activity again.

J.J. Prescott, a University of Michigan law professor and a trained economist, says that unraveling registries present a difficult political problem because while the upsides are intuitive to voters, the drawbacks are far less straightforward. He explains the downsides through a behavioral economics lens.

“The deterrence of prison is reduced by the use of public registries, because they have the effect of destroying the value of being out of prison by turning people into pariahs,” Prescott says. “Prison as a threat only works if you have something to lose.”

For 10 years, while Armstrong is on Illinois’ Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry, which is available to the public online, he will face small indignities — having to show up once a year at the police station with 10 dollars for the privilege of checking in, having the cops show up at his house at any hour, embarrassing him in front of his neighbors, and having to notify the police if he plans to leave town for just a few days — as well as the larger consequences that stem from anyone being able to uncover his murder conviction with just a few keystrokes. This all wasn’t part of the deal when he was convicted in 1986.

In the same year that President Bill Clinton signed the now-much-debated crime bill of 1994 he signed the Wetterling Act. The law was named for Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped and murdered. The Wetterling Act required that every state maintain lists of people convicted of sex offenses for law enforcement agencies. That idea wasn’t particularly novel; a handful of states had been maintaining crime registries available to cops for decades. The idea was the registries would serve as a tool for police to keep an eye on particularly high-risk offenders.

The big change came in 1996 with the passage of Megan’s Law. Congress was reacting to another high-profile child abduction case. Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old, was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting young girls. Kanka’s parents argued that, had they known there was a sex offender in the neighborhood, they would have taken more steps to protect their daughter. With Megan’s Law, the federal government required every state to make their sex offender lists available to the general public or jeopardize federal funding.

In the two decades since, the idea of making information about offenders public has proven immensely popular. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that virtually all Americans — 94 percent — supported public sex offender registries and about two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t even somewhat concerned about how the public nature of registries affected those forced to sign up. With the Internet providing states with a cheap and easy way to get information into the hands of citizens, lawmakers soon found registries to be a relatively inexpensive solution to complex problems, says Amanda Agan, a Rutgers University professor who studies the economics of crime.

“These policies were well intentioned and they sounded like they might work. And on top of that they are relatively low cost,” Agan says. “But now we have all of this evidence that they just don’t work, but the problem is it’s very difficult to start pulling back. There would be a public outcry.”

The Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry started off as a fix for a legislature-made problem. In the mid-1990s, at the height of the tough-on-crime movement, Illinois added a host of offenses against children to their sex offender rolls, including first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child abduction, regardless of whether the crime involved a sex offense. Responding to concerns that it was unfair to include those offenders — take, for example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who stabbed her older brother with a kitchen knife after a fight over a shower cap — on the sex crime list, the state created this new violent offender registry. That created a registry for people convicted of a set of violent crimes against children. That list was later expanded to include murderers like Armstrong, whose crimes didn’t involve children, when, in 2011, state lawmakers passed Andrea’s Law, named for a college student strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend.

While Illinois lawmakers may be the most zealous employers of public registries — the state also maintains an online list of those convicted of making methamphetamine — the state is far from alone. Oklahoma also has a violent crime registry similar to Illinois’ and Kansas has a meth registry like Illinois’. Indiana, Kansas, and Montana still have combined sex and violent offender registries. Florida, on the other hand, makes folks convicted of three violent felonies sign up for a public registry. Tennessee also had a meth registry, before expanding it into a much more encompassing drug offender registry. And among the more original uses, Tennessee also has an animal abuser registry and Utah recently launched a registry for people convicted of certain white-collar crimes.

While there isn’t much research about the effectiveness of newer crime registries like those for murderers, there has been a lot of research into sex offender registries. Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University, says that research has been conclusive: those registries simply haven’t reduced sex crimes. She says that’s because they obscure the real threat to children, being abused by someone close to them, and greatly overemphasize the incredibly rare occurrences of children being abducted by people they don’t know.

“Stranger abductions of children happen just 115 times a year in this country,” says Levenson, who studies the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce sexual violence. “While there’s no question that that’s 115 too many, there are 80 million children in this country. The problem with sex offender registries is they obscure the real threat — over 90 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by people they know.”

St. Louis University Law School professor Molly Wilson says the concept of cognitive availability helps explain why threats like stranger danger remain so prominent in the making of our criminal codes. Cognitive availability describes a logical fallacy where decision-makers tend to overemphasize the importance of examples that quickly come to mind. That leads people to overestimate threats with really salacious details, Wilson says.

“Prison as a threat only works if you have something to lose.”

“When you ask someone to estimate how serious a threat is, they search their minds,” says Wilson, who also holds a doctorate degree in psychology. “What they come to first is what is cognitively available, and that’s these really vivid examples that from an empirical standpoint are pretty rare. The human mind is designed to think of the sensory cases that imprint details — an image of the bicycle that a girl was riding sticking out of the bushes.”

Cognitive availability is a particularly compelling explanation for why many registries quickly expanded to murderers despite the fact that just 1 percent of murderers kill again. Similarly, just 6 percent of people convicted of rape or sexual assault repeated in the five-year follow-up period covered by a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That’s compared to a 13 percent same-crime recidivism rate for robbers and a 34 percent rate for those convicted of assault. Despite repeated attempts by researchers to link lower sex offender recidivism rates with the passage of registration laws, there’s been no conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis. In fact, there is some evidence that these laws actually increase recidivism as they effectively act as anti-re-entry programs.

Arthur Lurigio, a clinical psychologist and a professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says the rise of registries underscores a central failure of America’s criminal justice system: “ We are failing to recognize the possibility of human change.”

In 1990, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’ sister, brother-in-law, and their unborn child were killed at the hands of a 17-year-old. Bishop-Jenkins, who is the director of IllinoisVictims.org, sees similarities between her sister’s murderer and pedophiles.

“Serial killers, sociopaths, people who kill for the thrill of it have the same kinds of brain problems,” Bishop-Jenkins says. “This information is already public record. The question is how accessible you make that information to people. Victims should not have to work so freaking hard to know where the people who murdered their loved ones are—that information is just so important for them to live functional lives.”

Greg Champagne, the sheriff of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, and the current president of the National Sheriff’s Association, agrees that too much information can’t really be a problem.

“I’m a firm believer in the public knowing what’s going on in the criminal justice system,” says Champagne, a former prosecutor. “I can’t tell you how many [crimes have been prevented because of the sex offender registry] because you’ll never be able to prove that something didn’t happen because of a policy.”

Prescott, the University of Michigan law professor, argued that too much information could indeed prove a valid concern in a 2011 paper. He contends that, by publicizing the contact information of people convicted of possessing, distributing, or making child pornography, registries are actually facilitating illicit transactions by providing an easy way for buyers and sellers to find each other. He says new registries for those convicted of drug offenses illustrate the problem even more clearly.

“If I were a meth user and I moved to one of these states, I can find someone aged 25 or younger who has been convicted of making meth, that would be quite useful for me making new connections,” Prescott says.

Wayne Logan — whose 2009 book, Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America, charts the rise of crime registries over 75 years — says there has been some relaxing of registration rules for sex offenders in recent years. He points to California’s public registry, which no longer includes those caught soliciting prostitutes and so-called Romeo and Juliet offenses—those are the cases where there’s consensual sex between teenagers, one of whom is a minor.

“You see some unwinding,” says Logan, a professor of law at Florida State University. “But the overall trend is expansion. It’s a very flexible technology, it can work for arsonists or meth makers or white-collar criminals. It’s social control on the cheap.”

Pointing to all the new registries in his state, Bruce Armstrong isn’t optimistic about a change of heart in Illinois. He plans to start fresh, at the age of 60, outside of Illinois after his term on the registry expires.

That will be in 2022.

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