Here’s one reason to read beyond the abstract when research studies are published–headlines and summaries often don’t convey nuance.
Last month, a study was published on what police think about the damaging impacts of sex offender registries. The takeaway line from the abstract was this bland conclusion: “Results indicate that, although overall [law enforcement] concern regarding collateral impacts is limited, those who are most engaged in [registry]-related duties are significantly more likely to indicate such concern, and also more likely to believe that [the registration system] was an effective public safety tool.”
Those who support registries might read that and conclude that cops don’t much care about registries’ collateral effects. They also might have focused on this sentence from the study: “Respondents consistently expressed the belief that sex offender registration and notification was effective in achieving its primary community safety goals.”
But both statements miss some key points showing just how widespread concerns about sex offender registries are among cops.
Here’s how the study was done. The researchers did interviews in 2014 with 105 law enforcement personnel who work with registrants. They also did an online survey of about 1150 such personnel in 2015.
Here are the key highlights.
Fully 46 percent of respondents said that they thought registries were somewhat or very ineffective in reducing the likelihood that sex offenders would reoffend. That’s not to say there weren’t things that the cops surveyed said they approved of. About 90 percent liked the fact that registries make information sharing among law enforcement agencies easier and offer them information to support sex crime investigations.
But here’s the key point: both of those advantages could be provided by a registry available only to law enforcement, not to the public. Such law-enforcement-only registries were what Patty Wetterling sought to create in pushing the 1994 Wetterling Act, the first of the country’s current wave of sex offender laws.
Moving back to such a system could go far to address cops’ second concern: most think the collateral damage caused by sex registries is a problem.
64 percent of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the collateral unintended effects caused by registries.
35 percent of total respondents were moderately or very concerned about the effects of registries on registrants’ family members.
30 percent were moderately or very concerned about registries’ impact on registrants’ ability to get jobs.
31 percent were moderately or very concerned about that registries could create negativity and hopelessness among offenders and so increase their risk of reoffending.
Here’s what one officer said:
For a lot of these guys it’s hard for them to find work, it’s hard for them to find a place to live, you don’t have a job, you don’t have money, you can’t find a place to live, what are you going to do? You’re going to disappear, you’re going to go underground and we’re not going to know where you are and that’s the situation we deal with frequently here in (local area), housing is a real problem. So I think some guys just disappear because they don’t have any other options, they go, they have to go homeless because nobody will rent them an apartment and then we lose track of them.
Respondents in states with larger-than-average registries were more likely to be concerned with the unintended effects of registries and less likely to think they’re effective. Almost half of all respondents indicated that registries are less effective the larger they get. That suggests they see the weakness in the wide net cast by almost all state registries, which makes it difficult to identify and monitor the truly high-risk offenders.
That led to this rather stark conclusion by the research team: “Findings that larger registries resulted in greater collateral impacts for [registrants] suggest that attention should be paid to the size of registries, and whether there is a point at which registries pose a threat to public safety.”
To wit: our large sex offender registries may actually be putting everyone in more danger, not less.