Two decades of research regarding the effects of sex offender laws have produced no evidence that such laws achieve their stated purposes. A recent review of research on community notification and residency restriction laws in the Oxford Handbook of Sex Offences and Sex Offenders concludes that such legislation is “misinformed and simply incorrect.”
These laws are knee-jerk reactions to hysteria fueled by media narratives of sensational but exceptional tragedies; they are based on myths rather than facts. The first myth is that sex offenders are strangers, when in fact the overwhelming number of sex offenses are committed by family members, acquaintances or persons in positions of authority whom the victim trusts or relies upon.
The second myth is that sex offenders, particularly rapists and child molesters, chronically reoffend. Factual evidence tells us otherwise. The Bureau of Justice Statistics followed 9,691 sex offenders released from prison in 1994. Only 14 percent had had a prior conviction for a sex crime, and in the three years following their release, only 5 percent were re-arrested for a sex crime and only 3.5 percent were convicted.
A third myth is that sex offenders cannot be treated successfully. The majority of nearly 100 studies conducted since the 1970s finds treatment can reduce sexual recidivism, and any recidivism, by about 25 percent, and the more recent studies find the strongest effects.
Because they are based on myths, laws requiring community notification and restricting residency do nothing to ensure public safety and may in fact be counterproductive. Stigmatizing and isolating offenders may lead many of them to adopt a transient lifestyle that eludes monitoring and deprives them of support and treatment.
The writer is a professor of sociology and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Rhode Island.