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Sex-Offender Registries: Public Safety or Public Hazard?

By Rachel King
May 18, 2006

One month ago, 20-year-old Stephen Marshall, a dishwasher from Nova Scotia, Canada, murdered two Maine residents – William Elliott, 24, and Joseph Gray, 57 – in their homes. The two victims were convicted sex offenders. Marshall had obtained their names, addresses and photographs online from the state of Maine sex offender database.  Police tracked Marshall through a GPS tracking device located in his laptop computer, which Marshall had used to obtain the information about the men. When police boarded a Greyhound bus to arrest Marshall, he shot himself in the head with a .45 caliber gun, killing himself and scattering blood on five nearby passengers. Computer records indicated that Marshall had looked up the addresses of 32 people, and later investigation revealed that he had visited the homes of four offenders besides Elliott and Gray.

Federal law requires all states to have some type of sex offender registry in place but gives the states discretion to decide which crimes to list and how much information to reveal. Most states provide the information on line. Some databases provide names, photographs, maps and addresses, whereas others only provide names with an approximate address. Some states, like Maine, list every person convicted of a sex-related crime; others list only the most serious offenses. 

At the time of their inception, many civil libertarians opposed sex offender registries, believing that they violated the privacy of the offender and fearing that the registries would encourage vigilantism. Those fears were warranted. Every year, there are numerous crimes, including murder, against convicted sex offenders who comply with registration laws. At the same time, the government has not undertaken any research to establish if the laws succeed in making communities safer. Besides risking vigilantism, sex offender laws often make it difficult for people to rehabilitate themselves by making it more difficult for offenders to obtain employment and reintegrate into the community. 

Some experts challenge the effectiveness of the registration laws. For one thing, they do not differentiate between the hard-core predators and those who pose no danger to the community, as this case illustrates. William Elliott was convicted of having sex when he was 19 years old with his girlfriend, who was two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Gray was convicted of assaulting and raping a child younger than 14. Thus, both were convicted sex offenders, and both were required to register. Most people would agree that Gray’s crime was much more egregious than Elliott’s. Yet under the registration laws, both were treated equally.

Another concern is that the majority of sex crimes against children happen within the family or in a close community. Sometimes authorities can intervene and take steps that prevent the suspect from offending again. Perpetrators and victims may be less likely to cooperate if they fear vigilante violence will occur.

Another fear is that those offenders who are the least dangerous are the ones most likely to comply with the registration laws, which may give communities a false sense of security. Communities may know of the presence of a compliant offender but be unaware of a dangerous one who has not registered.

It may be time to do away with sex offender registration laws altogether. At the very least, the federal government should commission research to study the laws’ effectiveness. In the meantime, several changes should be made. States should differentiate between serious and non-serious offenders and only require registration of the most serious offenders. Next, public access to online sites should be dismantled, and registries should be kept at the local police stations. This would provide at least a minimal screening process to those seeking inquiries. Had Marshall been required to go in person to the police station to explain why he wanted the information, perhaps Elliott and Gray would be alive today. 

Lastly, we should experiment with restorative justice models such as what has happened in Canada where sex offenders moving into a community meet with members of the community in a public forum facilitated by a trained mediator. This type of forum gives the community an opportunity to meet the offender face to face and express their concerns and also for the offender to show the community that he is earnestly seeking to change his life. This model may encourage healing for both the offender and the community and end the cycle of violence that vigilantism continues.    

Rachel King is a Professor of Law at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.