Contrary to popular belief, offender registries are not a recent phenomenon. Offender registries are government-controlled systems that track the movements and other activities of certain persons with criminal convictions. While today they are most commonly used for sex offenders, registries have been adopted
since the 1930s to regulate persons convicted of a wide variety of offenses including embezzlement, arson, and drug crimes. Early registries were widely criticized as ineffective and overly punitive, and many were eliminated through litigation or legislative repeals. Others simply fell into disuse over the course of the 20th century. Now, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates that
modern sex offender registries are similarly ineffective at reducing crime. Sex offender registries are costly, vastly overbroad, and error-ridden. Even worse, the overwhelming stigma of public notification provisions may actually increase recidivism among offenders.2 Despite their repeated history of failure, enthusiasm for publicly available, internet-based registries for every offense imaginable has only grown in recent years. There have been proposals across the country to register those found guilty of animal abuse, arson, drug offenses, domestic violence, and even failure to pay child support. Existing registries are
expanding and becoming increasingly punitive. Without a concerted effort to stop the tide of offender registration, we are at risk of repeating past mistakes on a much larger and more treacherous scale.
Offender registries are backwards, punitive measures that do not make communities safer. Unfortunately, those in favor of more nuanced, data-driven methods of reducing violence and sexual abuse face substantial barriers in overcoming precedent from years when registries were far narrower in scope than they are today. Advocates must work to distinguish current registries from their predecessors, educate legislators and the public on the ineffectiveness and perverse consequences of offender registries, and continue to conduct research to determine what actually works to prevent harm. While it is an uphill battle, we may take comfort that the facts are on our side.