Monday, July 9, 2012
State legislatures enacted sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws with the explicit and exclusive aim of reducing sex offender recidivism. The general idea that we ought to “regulate” released offenders — of any type — to reduce the likelihood of their returning to crime is an attractive one, at least in theory. Criminal recidivism generates significant social harm. Nevertheless, despite their now-widespread use, SORN laws became the norm without any systematic study of their consequences. Admittedly, the logic underlying these laws seems at first difficult to gainsay: if a known sex offender poses even a small risk to a potential new victim, how can it hurt if the police are keeping better tabs on that offender or if the offender’s neighbors are made aware that he is a threat so they can take measures to reduce their own risk of victimization? But this question and its implied answer presume that SORN laws have no influence whatever on whether released sex offenders opt to pursue new victims in the first place. If the enforcement of notification laws imposes significant financial, social, and psychological costs on released sex offenders, as an avalanche of evidence suggests it does, then notification may in fact be criminogenic. The result may well be many more attempted attacks by convicted sex offenders and therefore higher recidivism rates on the whole, even if every individual attack attempted becomes somewhat less likely to succeed.