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 modem sex offender registries are similarly ineffective at reducing crime. Sex offender registries are costly, vastly overbroad, and error-ridden.1 Even worse, the overwhelming stigma of public notification provisions may actually increase recidivism among offenders. 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 thecountry to register those found guilty of animal abuse, arson, drug offenses, domestic violence, and even failure to pay child support. Existing registries areexpanding and becoming increasingly punitive. Without a concerted effort tostop the tide of offender registration, we are at risk of repeating past mistakes ona much larger and more treacherous scale.
This article will critically examine the past, present, and future of offenderregistries. In Part II, I describe the failed experiment of early registries. In Part III, I examine the explosion of sex offender registries in the 1990s and the current trend of non-sex offender registration. In Part IV, I outline policy arguments against offender registries, explaining that, despite their popularity with legislators and the public, they have failed to live up to their promise of making us safer. In Part V, I evaluate past and current legal challenges to offender registries. There is already a substantial body of work criticizing the law and policy of modem sex offender registries, which I will rely on heavily and attempt to synthesize. Relatively little has been written on other types of registries. Finally, in Part VI, I offer some modest suggestions on how to curtail the increasing use of offender registries. By drawing on their long history of use, abandonment, and revival, I hope to demonstrate how a massive public education and advocacy campaign may be necessary to curb the spread of offender registries for good.
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