Reforming the Sex Offender Registry

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The United States is the only country in the world to have such an array of laws that monitor, track, and restrict individuals convicted of sex offenses. Both federal and state laws govern the lives of sex offenders in all 50 states; convicted adults and juveniles alike are required to register as sex offenders, making their crimes, addresses, and other information public. The United States is also the only country in the world that prohibits people with prior sex crime convictions from living in certain areas. There are more than 800,000 individuals currently on the national sex offender registry, so many question if this nation-wide initiative to curb sex crimes is effective and worth the effort. Read on to learn more about sex offender laws, registries, community notifications, and current issues.

How many sex crimes are committed in the United States?

The sex crime category is broad and can involve unwanted or forced sex or any sexual contact that involves minors. Even crimes with no physical contact–such as those committed online–can lead to sex crime convictions and require sex offender registration.

It’s estimated that one in every five girls and one in every seven boys are sexually abused before they reach adolescence. The rate of sexual abuse for adults is lower; one in six adult women and one in 33 adult men have experienced sexual abuse. In 2005, sexual offenses accounted for 3.7 percent of all violent crimes. During the same year, it’s estimated that arrests for sexual crimes occurred only 27 percent of the time. Men account for 95 percent of arrests for sex crimes. Sex offenders represent only one percent of all arrests in the United States. Currently, there are around 150,000 sex offenders in the American prison system, and 10,000 to 20,000 are released to the community every year.

What is the sex offender registry?

The National Sex Offender Public Registry (NSOPR) was first established in 2005. It’s a database of information about convicted sex offenders who are released to the community, and it is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice. The registry can be fully accessed by law enforcement agencies and partially by the general public.

The information made available to the public is provided through the National Sex Offender Public Website that links state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries. It includes information on a sex offender’s physical description, date of birth, residency, and crime committed. Essentially, state sex offender registries collect data from all cities and counties, and forward it to the NSOPR. As each state has its own system, there are variations in what information can be accessed by the public on a state-by-state basis.

Who is required to register as a sex offender?

The registration takes place after sex offenders are released to the community. Individuals who were convicted of specified sex offenses are required to register with law enforcement agencies. Sex crimes that involve minors or any from of sexual assault are the most common offenses that require registration, but sex crimes committed online or public sexual indecency can also lead to sex offender registration. In addition, failure to register in itself is a criminal offense.

Sex offenders usually have to re-register every year, and every time they move to a new location. Some states require an update to the registration every three to six months, depending on the crime committed. Sometimes, depending on state regulations, individuals convicted of  certain sex crimes don’t even have to register as sex offenders, or they are required to register with law enforcement only, without their information being released to the public. Some states have limits on how long sex offenders should be registered for, establishing a designated period of time after which their information is permanently removed from the registry. Sex offenders also have the right to petition for their name being removed from the public sex offender registry, but this practice is rarely used and often not successful.

What laws govern sex offender registration?

The majority of states created their sex offender registries in the 1990s, but there are a few states that established their registries even earlier, dating back to the 1940s.

The federal government came into play in 1994 with the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The act mandated states to establish sex offender registries or they would lose a certain percentage of their federal funding. Under this law, individuals convicted of sex crimes and released to the community were required to register for a flat ten-year period, regardless of the offense. At that point, states could exercise their discretion in releasing sex offender information to the public by assessing risks to the community. The 1996 Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act lengthened the period of registration for certain sex crimes, mandating lifetime sex offender registration for those individuals who committed aggravated assault or were repeat sex offenders.

At the same time, Megan’s Law came into effect, requiring states to establish community notification systems. The law was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka who was raped and killed by a known sex offender who was living across the street from her family without their knowledge. This law mandates public access to sex offender information, and requires law enforcement to notify the public about any sex offenders who live in the area. Megan’s Law also created the National Alert Registry, which allows the public to learn if a sex offender lives in their area by entering their zip code into the tool.

In 2005, Florida and several other states passed the so-called Jessica’s laws. Even though the Jessica Lunsford Act, a federal version of the law, was never enacted by the Congress, as of now 42 states have enacted similar pieces of legislation. Among other things, Jessica’s laws can require a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for committing sex crimes against a person under 12 years old, followed by lifetime probation and sex offender registration. In addition, Jessica’s laws mandate electronic monitoring for certain sex offenders who are on probation or parole.

The NSOPR was also established at this point, and it was re-authorized in 2006 with the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The act also expanded the categories of people, including juveniles, who were required to register as sex offenders, and increased the period for which convicted sex offenders had to be registered.

Under Title 1 of the Adam Walsh Act, Congress also passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which extended monitoring and tracking of sex offenders by requiring states to notify the public about sex offenders in the area and creating three risk levels of registrants. The risk assessment is solely based on committed offense, and the level of registrant further determines the duration and frequency of registration. For example, lower risk offenders must register every year, while higher risk sex offenders register every three months. Prior to 2006, sex offenders were required to only register at the jurisdiction where they lived, but now sex offenders are also mandated to register at the jurisdictions where they work or go to school.

What is the purpose of sex offender registration and public notifications?

Generally, all individuals convicted of sex crimes are required to register with law enforcement. The main purpose of sex offender registries is to investigate and prevent new sex crimes. As law enforcement agencies keep information about convicted sex offenders, the practice allows for closer monitoring and faster identification when a new sex crime is committed.

In addition to crime prevention, sex offender laws aim to monitor and restrict those who reside in the community and have committed sex crimes in the past. All sex offenders released to community supervision are mandated to approve their residency with supervising officers. Those who are not under community supervision often face residency restrictions as well, such as the prohibition of registered sex offenders from living within 500-2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, and parks. Some states also prohibit sex offenders from passing through these “child safety zones.” Many states also use electronic monitoring for highest risk and violent sex offenders.

Another purpose of sex offender registration and community notification is to provide information for the citizenry so they can can exercise caution and be vigilant about their proximity to sex offenders who reside in the community. Not only can community members obtain information about sex offenders in their area, but they can share this information through organizing meetings, posting flyers, informing residents by going door to door, and posting in the local newspapers.

Is the sex offender registry effective?

The proponents of sex offender registration and public notification systems argue that they protect the public, especially children, from being sexually victimized. Their claims are based on the argument that such systems allow law enforcement and parents to work together to ensure public safety. Law enforcement has readily available information about convicted sex offenders in the neighborhood, while community members have tools to identify and exercise caution with sex offenders who reside in the area. Some state officials believe that sex offender registration and notification systems improve monitoring and facilitate information-sharing between law enforcement agencies.

Advocates also believe that residency restrictions can prevent future sex crimes as sex offenders have limited access to the areas where children usually congregate, such as parks, schools, and playgrounds.

Another common argument in support of current sex offender laws is that sex offender registration is a punishment for the committed crime. In this view, sex offenders should be shamed by the public as a ramification for what they have done in the past.

What are the arguments against the sex offender registry?

Some opponents of sex offender registration believe that such a system is inherently unfair as it targets people who have already served their sentence. Others point out the differences in sex offenses, denouncing a “one size fits all” approach to sex offenders. Those who advocate for changes in sex offender laws often don’t reject such a system completely, but refer to its shortcomings and the need to address its underlying issues.

Watch the video below for real stories of those who were convicted of sex offenses when they were juveniles and learn more about arguments against sex offender registry.

Sex Offender Laws Are Too Broad 

Sex offender registration applies to all individuals convicted of sex crimes without regard to severity of offense. As a result, both violent and non-violent sex crimes can lead to registration. In many states, prostitution, consensual teenage sex, and even public urination convictions can require individuals to register as sex offenders. Those who believe that the laws are too broad argue that in many cases the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, as urinating in the park is not the same thing as committing sexual abuse against a minor.

With recent laws requiring mandatory sex offender registration and public notification, even those who committed a single sex offense decades ago are required to register. That means that those who have fully rehabilitated and haven’t re-offended are placed on the public sex offender registry anyway. In addition, children are subject to the same regulations as adults. Those who advocate for changes in sex offender laws suggest making individualized risk assessments before requiring registration.

Watch the video below to learn about “one size fits all” sex offender laws in California.

Too Much Work for Law Enforcement

As there are around 800,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, with some updating their information every three months, the workload of law enforcement agencies has greatly increased. As mandatory registration is required for non-violent and low-risk offenders, law enforcement agencies also face difficulties in identifying potential crime suspects and those who require closer monitoring. Essentially, the effect is the opposite of the goal as law enforcement spend more time and resources on administrative registration and less on investigating leads.

Housing Restrictions Do More Harm Than Good

Most of the supporters of reforming current sex offender laws agree on the point that housing restrictions are harmful to offenders. As most states prohibit registered sex offenders from living close to public spaces where children can congregate, those individuals are pushed to move out from their families and familiar communities. In some instances, sex offenders cannot find a single place to live and become homeless. Some become unemployed because all employment opportunities are located in restricted areas, or because they live so far away that it’s impossible for them to commute to work. Restricted housing options result in lack of supervision and support, which are essential for successful re-entry and rehabilitation. Those who oppose residency restrictions also suggest that there is no evidence that such restrictions lead to a decrease in sex crimes. The concern is the opposite. In their view, community disenfranchisement can increase the likelihood of re-offending as registered sex offenders lack all supportive mechanisms needed for building successful lives.

Watch the video below to learn more about housing restrictions for sex offenders.

The Sex Offender Registry Doesn’t Deter Crimes

Opponents of sex offender registration and community notification systems argue that such a system is useless in itself because most of the convicted sex offenders don’t re-offend, particularly juveniles. In fact, recidivism rates for juvenile sex offenders are very low and few adult sex offenders committed prior sex crimes. In addition, most sex crimes against children are perpetrated by family members or trusted authority figures, not strangers.

Public Access Can Lead to Violence and Harassment 

The public nature of sex offender registration in itself prompts many risks. Online access to sex offender information can lead to harassment from neighbors and trigger violent behavior in those who were victimized. The bottom line is that information obtained through the public sex offender registry website can be used irresponsibly and even unlawfully by the same public that  such a system is trying to protect.


Indisputably, the current sex offender registration and public notification system was created with good intentions, but unfortunately it is filled with issues that require urgent public attention. Among others, there is a need as to create risk assessment mechanisms of released offenders to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Establishment of treatment and re-entry programs for convicted sex offenders is another necessity to ensure that those individuals can become productive members of society. It’s important to make sure that the sex offender registry is effective for both the people on it, as well as the people it aims to protect.



U.S. Senate: Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006

U.S. Senate: S.1675 Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996

U.S. Department of Justice: National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW)

U.S. Government Accountability Office: Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act


National Alert Registry: Jacob Wetterling Act

National Alert Registry: Home

ABC News: Five Myths About Sex Offender Registries

FindLaw: The Sex Offender Register: What You Need to Know

FindLaw: Sex Offenders and Sex Offenses: Overview

FindLaw: The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act

Human Rights Watch: US: Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good

Human Rights Watch: No Easy Answers. Sex Offender Laws in the U.S.

Newstimes: Is the Sex Offender Registry Fair?

Valeriya Metla
Valeriya Metla is a young professional, passionate about international relations, immigration issues, and social and criminal justice. She holds two Bachelor Degrees in regional studies and international criminal justice. Contact Valeriya at



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