(Please note that portions of this blog use legislative and legal terms that aren’t Safe & Just Michigan’s preferred terminology. Safe & Just Michigan prefers to use humanizing person-first terms. However, as this post deals with pending legislation and existing laws, we are referring to them by their names for the sake of clarity.)
Sex offender registries in Michigan and other states are supposed to keep communities safe. The registries premise that people who have been convicted of a sex offense pose an inherent risk to their neighbors, so they must register where they live and work. In practice, they require people on the registry to forego some of their privacy for the greater good. More than 90 percent of people on the registry are on it for 25 years to life, and though there is a petition process to get your name removed, attempts are rarely successful.
The Michigan registry started as a small, nonpublic list. Over the years, it has grown exponentially and has been made available to search by the public, which means neighbors, coworkers or even curious bystanders can keep tabs on anyone placed on it. In Michigan, more than 70 percent of people who are placed on the registry have been ordered to remain on it for life.
For the 44,000 people in Michigan who have been ordered to register — more than are incarcerated in Michigan prisons — this status is life-changing. Laws place severe limits on where they can live and work to keep them away from places where children are likely to be. Michigan’s law held that they could not live, work or even stand within 1,000 feet of a church, school or day care center.
Multiple courts found Michigan’s registry to be unconstitutional, but the Legislature did not act to bring the registry into compliance with the courts’ decisions. Finally, during another challenge, a federal district judge held that the Legislature had to bring Michigan’s registry into compliance or he would, in essence, void the registry for many people on the registry.
The Legislature is now working on a bill that would bring the state’s sex offender registry into compliance with the judge’s orders: House Bill 5679. Safe & Just Michigan doesn’t support this bill. Evidence shows that not only does Michigan’s sex offender registry not work, these registries haven’t reduced sex-based offenses anywhere. HB 5679 fails to address those problems. Our Policy Analyst, Josh Hoe, recently gave testimony to the Michigan House Judiciary Committee outlining our concerns about this bill:
Rather than reducing the amount of sexual assault in our communities, these registries are, in fact, making people less safe:
Registries create a false sense of security
Sex offender registries weren’t created to makes feel safe; they were supposed to make us be safe. All we know from evidence-based research tells us otherwise. For a registry to be effective, it has to already include the names of people most likely to be convicted of sex-related offenses in the future, and the people most likely to benefit from knowing this information have to access and use it. However, neither of these conditions are true.
First, the overwhelming number of people who are convicted of a sex-related offense have never been convicted before. This means that the haven’t done anything that would have landed their names on the sex offender registry, and there was no way the registry could have served as an effective warning to the survivor. The registry didn’t do its job.
Second, people who were convicted of sex offenses were already among the least likely to re-offend. Popular opinion and moral panic aside, data shows different. Depending on the study, people who were convicted of a sex offense have a recidivism rate of 7.7 percent for another sex-based offense. And among people who had been incarcerated on a sex-related offense, only half had another conviction that led them back to prison within nine years of release, compared to 69 percent of people convicted of all other kinds of offenses.
Furthermore, most people who are sexually assaulted know the person who harmed them (80 percent), and this is especially true of children (93 percent). It’s uncertain whether people will look up the names of their fathers and grandfathers, their wives and their aunts to see if they are listed on the registry, or what a family would do with that information.
Registries lead to higher rates of recidivism
People on the registry already suffer the collateral consequence of having a criminal record. On top of that, they are subject to the moral panic of having a sex offense on that record, too, making them subject to another layer of discrimination. Several research studies have found that the link between registries and reduced rates in crime is questionable at best. At worst, there seems to be a link between registries and an increase in crime.
In their study, “Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?” researchers J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff wrote, “Importantly, we find no evidence that notification laws (as opposed to registration laws) reduced crime by lowering recidivism — the estimated effect is actually weaker when a large number of offenders are on the registry. … convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crime when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make crime more attractive.”
First, being on a registry itself puts one perilously close to recidivism. Any failure to adhere to the many requirements of the registry is a crime in itself and subject to mandatory parole revocation, which means a return to prison. And for someone on the registry, running afoul of the registry can be anything as simple as neglecting to update local law enforcement of a new social media account you opened or a car you just sold.
When people on the registry can’t find good jobs or safe places to live, they are more likely to recidivate and return to prison. Even before COVID-19 hit, the unemployment rate for Black men and white men who had been incarcerated was 35.2 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively, compared to the overall unemployment rate for Black men and white men of 7.7 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively.
The pattern repeats in housing, too. Among the general public, just 21 out of 10,000 people have been recently homeless. Among people who were formerly incarcerated, however, the rate jumps to about 200 out of 10,000 — about 10 times greater. On top of that, people on the registry have to contend with restrictive distancing laws that further limit that number of places they can even consider living.
Registries squander law enforcement resources
Law enforcement organizations have to use some of their limited resources to register, track and follow up on registry matters, and to handle safety concerns that arise because of the registry. This is likely to become a larger problem in coming years as more and more people are being added to the registry for life, making the registry swell to ever-greater proportions. According to one criminology study, “In a time when budgets are overburdened and correctional institutions are reconsidering sentencing options for other technical breaches and nonviolent offenses, increased penalties for FTR (failure to register) seem counterintuitive. Vast fiscal and personnel resources are required to update technology, enforce registration rules, and incarcerate violators, despite mounting evidence suggesting that failure to register as a sex offender does not seem to raise the risk for sexual reoffending.”
Registries create a disincentive to report sex-based offenses
When sex offender registries were created, it was hoped that they would end the under-reporting of sex-based offenses. Time has shown that not to be the case, and in fact, registries can create a powerful disincentive to report a sex-based offense, especially if it might result in a family member or loved on being placed on the registry. That’s significant, because as Michigan Attorney General wrote in her amicus brief to the federal court case, about 70 percent of men incarcerated on a sex crime are there for a crime whose victim who was a child, and in the vast majority of those cases, the incarcerated person is a relative of the child.
Sadly, despite parental fears of “stranger danger,” their children face a greater risk of being sexually molested by family member or family friend than someone unknown to them. If that were to happen, a child might be afraid to come forward with the information for fear that the family member or friend could end up on the registry. Or worse, the child could be pressured into not speaking out about it for the same reason.
Registries are unsafe for the people who are on them
Registries make life unsafe for the people who are on them. People on the registries are socially shunned, excluded from jobs and often find it difficult to secure safe housing. Because many of their personal details are available on online databases, they have been targeted for identity theft crimes. In the worst instances, people on registries have been physically assaulted.
Some people who favor the registries use the moral panic over people with sex assault convictions as justification for these collateral consequences. However, it’s important to remember that the registries were intended to protect the public, not to punish the person on the registry. The registry is mandated, maintained and made accessible by the government. When citizens are being physically and financially harmed because of it, that’s a concern.
Registering complaints: Where to go from here
For these reasons, among many others, it’s time to rethink sex offender registries. They don’t provide the safety they promised, and in fact, they leave communities — as well as people listed on the registry — less safe. We hope you’ll join us May 28 at noon EST for a discussion about sex offender registries and the evidence-based case to end them. Joining us will be:
Moderator: Josh Hoe, Policy Analyst at Safe & Just Michigan
- Miriam Aukerman, Senior Staff Attorney at ACLU of Michigan
- Judith Levine, Journalist, Feminist and Co-Founder of the National Writers Union, Co-Author of “The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence)
- Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University School of Social Work
To sign up for this event, please go to bit.ly/EndTheRegistry. We hope to see you on Zoom on Thursday, May 28, at noon!