THE “RAISING AWARENESS” MYTH: Debunking “If It Saves Just One Child” and Other Justifications for the Public Registry Derek W. Logue of OnceFallen.com Published 23 June 2019
“The purpose of the law was to provide an awareness to parents. It was put there for parents to know where the offenders are living. Five million people have gone to the state web site. It's doing what it was supposed to do. We never said it was going to stop them from reoffending or wandering to another town.” -- Maureen Kanka, in a telephone interview with The Star-Ledger.
Megan’s Law was sold to the public on the notion that public knowledge of the residences of individuals previously convicted of sexual offenses would decrease the likelihood of being a victim of a sexual offense. However, most sex crimes occur in the home by someone the victim knows, and the offender is more likely than not to lack any prior sex offense arrest record. Maureen Kanka’s claims of not knowing a person who served time for a sexual offense is debatable. The public registry likely would not have saved Adam Walsh or Jacob Wetterling.
Despite the fact the existence of the public sex offense registry would likely have had no impact whatsoever on the cases that inspired the registry, this registry has been promoted as a panacea. Proponents of the registry have justified the registry by touting the claims it raises awareness. The mantra that the registry increases vigilance is often accompanied by the mantra, “If it saves just on child, then the registry is worth it.”
This article examines the notion that the public sex offense registry “raises awareness” and the claims of child protection.
THE “RAISING AWARENESS” CLAIM
The news media runs public registry advertorials regularly, commonly accompanied by ominous-sounding headlines warning of some kind of unique threat to the public or in relation to a compliance check as well as a link to the local or national registry (or, at times, to a private registry like Family Watchdog).
The central argument regarding the raising awareness claim should be whether the public sex offense registry is actually used as intended. Evidence of exposure to the registry is sporadic, but the existing studies have found that the registry is not as popular as registry proponents and the media like to portray.
Perhaps the most damning story regarding the registry in recent memory came from a CNN 2011 interview with the mother of one of the accusers of former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky. The mother told CNN that her son asked her to help him navigate the public registry to see if Sandusky was on the list because he “acts weird.” He was not on the registry at that time because like most sex crime arrests, Sandusky had no prior record.
In the wake of the high-profile murder case of Jessica Lunsford, a joint poll by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup found that only 38% of individuals were even aware their state even maintains a public registry. Even though 94% of those polled favored registries, only 23% have ever checked the registry, while 34% stated concerns over harassment and vigilantism as a result of the registry. Sadly, the poll also found that 65% of those polled believed people on the registry “cannot be rehabilitated.” The pollsters also opined that, “More limited access to the Internet could be dampening the ability of people from lower income households to review their local registry, but even those in higher income households exhibit a low rate of checking.”
A 2008 survey of 1,821 Nebraska residents found that 89.8% were aware of the existence of the public sex offense registry, but only 34.8% had accessed the registry. Women were more likely to use the registry (42% to 27%) and homes with children are more likely to use the registry than homes without children (46% to 25%). Of those who viewed the registry, 78.7% have checked more than once; 28.9% checked the registry more than five times; 88% of those accessing the registry felt “safer” after viewing the registry, albeit only “somewhat” or “a little safer.” Few respondents offered reasons for not checking the registry, though most who did offer a response felt it was the responsibility of others to notify them. The registry was utilized more for business/ employment reasons than personal interests or safety. About 41% of females and 32% of males took some kind of preventive measure after viewing the registry; the most common measure was telling others about the registry. One respondent reported evicting a tenant from her apartment rental as the result of the registry.
A 2009 survey found, “Michigan residents were questioned about their utilization of the sex offender registry and whether they believed any sex offenders lived in their community. The authors found that few respondents had looked at the registry. Reasons respondents provided for nonuse included lack of interest in the registry, living in a “safe” area, and not having children. Although it was found that registry use was related to awareness of offenders in the community, after viewing the registry, nearly half of the survey participants still believed no offenders lived in the community.”
A 2013 report on the use of the Texas state sex offense registry found that 73.6% were familiar with sex offender registries, 7% were unsure of their familiarity, 19.6% unfamiliar with registry. Among those familiar with the registry, 40.9% had accessed it for themselves, 17.8% had accessed it for someone else, and 30.2% had not accessed it at all. People discovered the registry existed primarily by word of mouth (35.9%), internet search (22.4%), and television (13.2%). Of those who looked at the registry, 18.8% accessed it once, 24.6% twice, and 38.1% had used it three to five times. When respondents were asked about their reasons for accessing the registry, nearly 40% of respondents accessed it because they were curious, 18% because they were worried for their safety and about 12% because they were concerned about young children’s safety. Using these numbers, 13% of the poll takers looked at the registry out of fear, while 17.3% did so out of curiosity. Barely two out of five people have used the registry, and only about one in eight viewed the registry out of safety concerns, while about 1 in 6 did so out of curiosity. 
The 2013 Texas study noted, “The existing research has indicated that few people access the registry, individuals who have been victims of sex crimes are more likely to utilize the registry, but few individuals took preventative action after accessing the registry.”  The Texas study found similar results, with more victims of sex crimes than those that have not experienced sex crimes have viewed the public registry. Interestingly, victims of identity theft were the crime victims most likely to utilize the public registry. “Victims and respondents who knew a victim of a sex crime used the registry more often. Over 62% of both groups of respondents who had been a victim and those who knew a victim of a sex crime and were familiar with the registry utilized the registry three or more times, while only 40% of both non-victims and those who did not a victim of a sex crime used the registry this often. Victims were also more likely to take protective action as a result of what they learned from the registry than non-victims. Over 72% of victims familiar with the registry took at least one protective action in comparison to 59% of non-victims.”
“Respondents who were familiar with the registry and had not utilized it were asked about their reasons for not accessing the registry. The most common reason respondents gave was not knowing what to do with the information/believing there was nothing they could do (11.7%), and the least common response was not being interested (4%).” 
The Texas study found that the registry increases fear among those who accessed the registry, leading to some registry viewers to take “preventive measures”:
“While 17.4% of respondents who had accessed a sex offender registry reported taking no protective measures, the majority reported at least one protective measure as a result of accessing the registry. The most commonly reported protective measures include locking doors regularly (19.4%) and advising others about registered sex offenders living in the neighborhood (20.7%)… Another commonly reported measure was not walking alone in the neighborhood (15.4%).”
The researchers warned, however, to use caution in using the results because those polled were university students.
A 2013 YouGov poll of 1196 people found half of respondents have checked the public sex offense registry. “Women and parents are among the most likely to have checked whether sex offenders live in their neighborhood – 66% of parents with kids have checked the register, compared with 46% of adults without children under 18. 54% of women and 47% of men say they have checked for offenders…62% of the population thinks it is very important that the information is publicly available – 71% of women and 52% of men strongly support making sex offender homes public information. Men are more likely to feel that it is not important to make people’s homes on the Sex Offenders Registry public – 10% of men compared with 4% of women.” About 44% believed the registry was inaccurate; only 19% believe the registry is up-to-date. About 27% believe those on the registry should not live within 10 miles of a school, 19% feel they should live wherever they want so long as they are registered, and 6% should be able to live wherever they want even if they aren’t registered. Regarding reactions to the registry, 35% felt “shocked”, 27% felt “worried”, 18% felt “safe”, and 11% felt “relieved”; Southerners were most likely to feel shocked, while Midwesterners were most likely to feel safe. Of course, the article accompanying the report failed to mention that 23% of respondents felt “impartial” and 8% had no opinion or were unsure.
Simply looking at the registry does not necessarily mean they are being utilized. Many states or private registry companies offer some form of email alert services, but are often unused. When the state of Florida proposed cutting e-mail notification alerts in 2008 due to budget cuts, it was noted only 44,000 of the state’s 16 million residents (or 0.275%) signed up for the program, or roughly one signee per registrant. In 2019, only about 1300 of South Carolina’s 5 million residents (0.00026% of the population) utilize the email program run by SC’s State Law Enforcement Division. The same advertorial also noted in Louisiana, 84,367 (of 4.66 million); use an email alert service In Arkansas, more than 8,500 (of 3 million) have signed up; In Colorado, around 5,400 (of 5.6 million) people take advantage of their state’s instant notification.
A 2015 survey of law enforcement officials, many of whom worked with registry units, found that 66.8% of law enforcement officials had responded at least a moderate-level concern the information on the registry are subject to misunderstanding or misinterpretation; 62.5% reported at least a moderate concern that the registries give a false sense of security; 45.6% expressed a at least a moderate concern that the registry promotes unnecessary fear; and 35.5% expressed at least a moderate concern about harassment of registrants.
While the studies utilized different focus groups, there is a general consensus that despite the oversaturation of advertising for the registry at least half to two-thirds of Americans do not bother to look at the public sex offense registry. Of those who utilize the registry, curiosity or business was more important than safety reasons. Of those who have looked at the registry, few use the registry regularly. However, exposure to the registry has been associated with negative emotions, yet a large number of people stated they either did not alter their lives in any way or talked to someone else at best. Based on the studies listed, the registry obviously caters to a small subset of Americans that seem more prone to fear advertising. There has yet to be a study focusing on this subset of people, but it is possible this subset is prone to the fear-focused advertorials utilized by the media.
PUBLICIZING THE REGISTRY HAS NOT LED TO A DECREASE OF SEX CRIMES
A 2008 study on New York’s on sex crime rates on the 10 years before and after the state public sex offense registry was made public concluded there was no discernable difference in the sex crime rates after the registries became public:
“The present study used 252 months of arrest data and univariate ARIMA time series analyses to evaluate the impact of New York State’s SORA. More specifically, the study proposed the general question of whether there are differences in sexual offense arrest rates before and after the enactment of SORA, as well as the two specific questions of: (a) whether registration and notification laws are decreasing re-arrest rates for convicted sex offenders, or (b) whether registration and notification laws are deterring nonregistered offenders from committing registerable sexual offenses. According to the analyses, all three of these questions are answered negatively. That is, results of the analyses indicate that the 1996 enactment of SORA (and thus the beginning of the registry) had no significant impact on rates of total sexual offending, rape, or child molestation, whether viewed as a whole or in terms of offenses committed by first-time sex offenders or those committed by previously convicted sex offenders (i.e., repeat offenders)… The current study also found that 95.9% of all arrests for any RSO, 95.9% of all arrests for rape, and 94.1% of all arrests for child molestation were of first-time sex offenders. Thus, as none of these offenders had any prior convictions for sexual offenses, none of them were on the sex offender registry (or would have been on the registry had it existed) at the time of their offenses.”
A 2008 New Jersey study that studied sex offense rates for 10 years preceding and following the passage of Megan’s Law also concluded Megan’s Law has no effect on community tenure (i.e., time to first re-arrest) and showed Megan’s Law had no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses. Megan’s Law has no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation/incest). Megan’s Law has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses 
A 2010 study of the South Carolina Sex Offense Registry concluded, “[T]here was no significant decline in the six year period after 1999, which was the year that South Carolina implemented its online sex offender registry, indicating that online notification did not influence general deterrence of adult sex crimes. Across a mean follow-up of 8.4 years, 490 (8%) of registered sex offenders had new sex crime charges and 299 (4%) offenders had new sex crime convictions.”
A 2010 study of the Iowa Registry for the 10 years preceding and following the passage of the public sex offense registry also came to the conclusion the registry has had no impact on sex crime rates. “The results of this study suggest that SORN has not reduced the rate of sex offender recidivism, nor has it led to a decrease in the number of offenses committed by recidivating sex offenders. Among a 10-year cohort of Iowa sex offenders, not only is the sexual recidivism rate virtually identical prior to and following the implementation of SORN, but so too is the distribution of sex offenders into trajectory groups essentially identical.”
A 2011 study also failed to find any correlation between the public registry and any decrease in sex crime recidivism:
“The data in these three data sets do not strongly support the effectiveness of sex offender registries. The national panel data do not show a signiﬁcant decrease in the rate of rape or the arrest rate for sexual abuse after implementation of a registry or access to the registry via the Internet. The BJS data that tracked individual sex offenders after their release in 1994 do not show that registration had a signiﬁcantly negative effect on recidivism. And the D.C. crime data do not show that knowing the locations of sex offenders by census block can help predict the locations of sexual abuse. This pattern of non-effectiveness across the data sets does not support the conclusion that sex offender registries are successful in meeting their objectives of increasing public safety and lowering recidivism rates.”
The general consensus is the registry has virtually no impact on sexual offenses. It is hard to justify the continued support of a program that has not even proven effective in over two decades of existence. Perhaps it is this reason victim advocates and registry proponents tend to use the mantra of “If it saves just one child” as a Hail Mary measure to justify the registry.
THE REGISTRY DESTROYS MORE CHILDREN THAN IT SAVES. IS THE REGISTRY TRULY WORTH IT?
One of the most common justifications people with little knowledge of the complexity of registration laws is the mantra “If it saves one child, then it is worth it.” That mythical one child is not any child, but a select child from American society. At the least, the children that have been punished for sexual offenses are not saved by the registry even though juveniles are viewed by a general consensus of researchers they are highly amenable to treatment.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Juvenile sex offenders comprise more than one-quarter (25.8 percent) of all sex offenders and more than one-third (35.6 percent) of sex offenders against juvenile victims… Known juvenile offenders who commit sex offenses against minors span a variety of ages. Five percent are younger than 9 years, and 16 percent are younger than 12 years. The rate rises sharply around age 12 and plateaus after age 14. As a proportion of the total, 38 percent are between ages 12 and 14, and 46 percent are between ages 15 and 17. The vast majority (93 percent) are male.”
The 2009 Juvenile Justice Bulletin states that "juvenile sex offenders account for only 3.1 percent of all juvenile offenders and 7.4 percent of all violent juvenile offenders. If other jurisdictions in the country were assumed to be the same as the NIBRS jurisdictions, one would extrapolate approximately 89,000 juvenile sex offenders known to police throughout the United States in 2004.
The 2013 Human Rights Watch Report found that “Throughout the United States, children as young as nine years old who are adjudicated delinquent may be subject to sex offender registration laws. For example, in Delaware in 2011, there were approximately 639 children on the sex offender registry, 55 of whom were under the age of 12. In 2010, Michigan counted a total of 3,563 youth offenders adjudicated delinquent on its registry, a figure that does not include Michigan’s youth offenders convicted in adult court. In 2010, Michigan’s youngest registered sex offenders were nine years old. A 2009 Department of Justice study, which focused only on sex crimes committed by children in which other children were the victims, found that one out of eight youth sex offenders committing crimes against other children was younger than 12.”
As of May 2011, at least 37 states have statutory law requiring sex offender registration of some juveniles adjudicated delinquent for qualifying offenses: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Massachusetts allows children as young as age 7 to be placed on the sex offender registry; Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas allow children as young as age 8 to be placed on the registry; and North Carolina allows children as young as 11 to be placed on the registry.
The Adam Walsh Act Section 111(8) states that juveniles ages 14 and over qualify for the public registry under federal guidelines.
Juvenile registrants have faced vigilante threats and attacks as the direct result of being on the registry. Among the 296 cases examined for a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, 154 (52 percent) youth offenders experienced violence or threats of violence against themselves or family members that they directly attributed to their registration.
If the reader of this report cannot sympathize with a juvenile accused of a sexual offense regardless of the ethics of registering a child on a public pillory for potentially the rest of his or her life, then consider the impact the registry has on children with no criminal record. A 2009 survey by Levenson and Tewksbury found, “Most family members of RSOs (86%) reported that SORN has caused stress in their lives, 77% often felt a sense of isolation, and 49% often felt afraid for their own safety due to public disclosure of the sex offender’s status. Half had lost friends or a close relationship as a result of community notification, and 66% said that shame and embarrassment often kept them from engaging in community activities. These adverse consequences of SORN laws were correlated with increased stress levels in RSO family members. Lower income was empirically associated with increased stress levels, as were feelings of isolation, fear for one’s safety, shame interfering with social activities, and having to move.” About 30% of study respondents answered that “A person who lives with me (who is NOT a RSO) has been threatened, harassed, assaulted, injured, or suffered property damage because someone found out through Megan’s Law that my family member is a sex offender.”
A 2014 study reported a number of personal examples of the impact the public registry had on children of registered persons:
“One of the most common themes to emerge was how children of registered sex offenders are shunned by their friends and friends’ parents. A 44year-old male wrote that “[p]arents don’t want their children to play with my children.” Another father from Texas reported that his children were not “invited for play dates or birthday parties” and a 41-year-old mother from Wisconsin claimed that her “children suffer the most…they lose friends.” Another mother stated, “People pick on my children. They make jokes about me being an easy lay to my teenage sons.”
The 2015 book “Protecting Our Kids? How sex offender laws are failing us” by Emily Horowitz shares many stories of collateral damage to the families of registered persons, including the daughter of a registrant named Sarah. When the PO stops at her house to check on her father, they arrive in a car clearly marked “Sex Offender Treatment Program,” and leave a sign on the door proclaiming the residence as belonging to a “sex offender.” Sarah’s father cannot take Sarah to the mall or church, and the entire family’s internet use is subject to a warrantless search at any time.
Proponents of the public sex offense registry have used the mantra of “If it saves just one child, it is worth it” for years, but even anecdotal evidence that the registry has prevented sexual abuse of any kind has proven to be hard to find. A review of major victim advocacy groups for this study could not find any evidence of the registry being used in a manner that would suggest it has projected more than an anecdotal example of protection from abuse. Furthermore, there has yet to be a published report where a sweep of registrants following a missing person report led to the discovery of the missing person at the residence of a known registrant. There is ample evidence, however, that the registry has harmed children, either by placing juveniles on registries or as the collateral consequences for living in the residence of a loved one currently on the registry. This is why Reason Magazine proclaimed in 2018: “This is what our sex offender laws have done: Today, your child is more likely to end up on the registry than to be molested by someone on it.”
There is little evidence to support that the argument that the registry truly “raises awareness.” At least half to two-thirds of Americans have never looked at the registry, and only a small proportion of those who have ever looked at the registry use it regularly. Of those who use the registry, most look at it either out of curiosity or as a business screening tool rather than out of fear of personal safety. The media has played a primary role in promoting registries, and those who view media advertorials for registries often experience varying degrees of fear and shock from exposure to the registry. However, many people that view the registry change their behaviors in response to registry exposure other than to talk to others about it. It seems plausible these talks would be more gossip-related than safety-related when taking why people tend to view registries. For a small subset of those who have viewed the registry, it could be more accurately stated exposure to the public registry raises FEAR rather than awareness.
If the registry truly raised awareness, it should have been reflected by some marked decrease in sexual abuse by registered persons, but there is no research that can find even a modest decrease in recidivism rates or of sex crime rates in general. Thus, the myth that sex offender registries raise public awareness is debunked.
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Supra, Wilkes and Bouffard, p. 3
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