How SCOTUS Promoted Pernicious Myths About Offender Registries

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Smith v. Doe, a Supreme Court decision that approved retroactive application of Alaska’s sex offender registry, deeming it preventive rather than punitive. That ruling helped propagate several pernicious myths underlying a policy that every state has adopted without regard to its justice or effectiveness.

Writing for the majority in Smith, Justice Anthony Kennedy took it for granted that collecting and disseminating information about people convicted of sex offenses made sense as a public safety measure. But that premise was always doubtful.

The vast majority of sexual assaults, especially against children, are committed by relatives, friends or acquaintances, and the perpetrators typically do not have prior sex-offense convictions. That means they would not show up on a registry even if someone bothered to check.

It is therefore not surprising that research finds little evidence to support Kennedy’s assumption that publicly accessible registries protect potential victims. Summarizing the evidence in a 2016 National Affairs article, Eli Lehrer noted that “virtually no well-controlled study shows any quantifiable benefit from the practice of notifying communities of sex offenders living in their midst.”

To reinforce the logic of registries, Kennedy averred that “the risk of recidivism posed by sex offenders is ‘frightening and high.'” He was quoting his own opinion in an earlier case, which in turn relied on an unsubstantiated estimate from a source who has publicly and repeatedly disavowed it.

According to Kennedy’s paraphrase, “the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80%.” By contrast, a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that the three-year recidivism rate for sex offenders was 3.5%.

Studies covering longer periods find higher recidivism rates, but still nothing remotely like 80%, even for high-risk offenders. Despite its empirical emptiness, Kennedy’s “frightening and high” claim has been quoted again and again in legal briefs and judicial opinions across the country.

Although registries are ostensibly based on the risk of recidivism, they apply indiscriminately to broad classes of people, even when there is little reason to think they pose an ongoing danger. Dissenting in Smith, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Alaska’s law “applies to all convicted sex offenders, without regard to their future dangerousness.”

One of the men who challenged Alaska’s law, Ginsburg pointed out, “successfully completed a treatment program” and “gained early release on supervised probation in part because of his compliance with the program’s requirements and his apparent low risk of reoffense.” A court determined that “he had been successfully rehabilitated,” based partly on “psychiatric evaluations” indicating that he had “a very low risk of re-offending” and was “not a pedophile.”

That man nevertheless was required to renew his registration four times a year for the rest of his life. The online registry included his name, photograph, criminal record, address, physical description, date of birth and place of employment, along with the license plate numbers of vehicles he used.

Kennedy minimized the consequences of publicly branding people as presumptively dangerous sex offenders, calling it “less harsh” than revocation of a professional license.

But as Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his dissent, there was “significant evidence of onerous practical effects of being listed on a sex offender registry,” ranging from “public shunning, picketing, press vigils, ostracism, loss of employment, and eviction” to “threats of violence, physical attacks, and arson.”

Those predictable costs, combined with legal restrictions on where registrants may live and which locations they may visit, undermine rehabilitation and continue to punish registrants long after they have completed their sentences. That is why several state and federal courts have concluded, contrary to what the Supreme Court said in Smith, that registration schemes are punitive in effect.

Activists who oppose registration will call attention to that reality during a vigil at the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning. They are clearly right in arguing that the illusory benefits of public registries cannot justify the burdens they impose.

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Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.