By Medical University of South Carolina
Charleston - Two federally-funded MUSC studies on South Carolina's sex offender registration and notification system and its effect on community safety revealed that prosecutors often pursue non-sexual charges or fail to get convictions for sex crimes since the registry was enacted in the mid-90's. The studies also found that the current system for convicted sex offenders often did not deter them from committing similar crimes.
Lead investigator for both studies, Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D., MUSC associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said the findings show that the current state and federal laws for registering sex offenders and notifying communities about their locations need to be revamped.
The purpose of the projects was to examine the effectiveness of South Carolina's sex offender registration and notification policy in reducing sexual violence. In connection with a National Institute of Justice report late last week regarding adult sex offenders, and conclusions of a recent project funded by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involving juvenile sex offenders, Letourneau found that these laws did not produce their desired effects to deter new and repeat sex crimes.
"The idea behind these laws was that they would deter repeat crimes by identified offenders, and would deter first offenses by people who had not yet committed any sex crimes" she said. "However, we found no evidence of reduced reoffending for juvenile or adult offenders subjected to registration and notification and no evidence of initial deterrence for juveniles. Moreover, we found strong evidence that these policies influenced how juvenile and adult sex crime cases are prosecuted and ultimately reduced the likelihood of finding juveniles or adults guilty of sex crimes. In combination with an accumulation of published evidence from other researchers, our findings indicate that it is time to revamp our state and federal laws pertaining to the registration and community notification systems for sex offenders. The current state policy of registration and notification is failing because the unintended effects it has had on prosecution of sex crime cases could actually reduce community safety."
While noting that registries and notification systems are well-intended and strongly supported by most citizens, Letourneau's research has highlighted numerous problems, and prompted the thought that the state is annually spending an untold amount of money to support an ineffective system.
With respect to Letourneau's adult-focused project, the most interesting results were:
- Both registration and online notification were associated with significant increases in plea bargains, where defendants were permitted to plead to non-sex offense charges;
- Adult defendants who were actually prosecuted for sex crimes (who did not plead) were significantly less likely to be found guilty after online registration was enacted;
- Similar plea bargain results were found for juvenile defendants, whose rates of pleading to non-sex offense charges more than doubled after South Carolina's policy was enacted. Prosecutors also dismissed significantly more juvenile sex crime cases after South Carolina's policy was enacted;
- Defendants whose charges are dismissed outright, pleaded to non-sex offense charges or acquitted are unlikely to receive specialized treatment or supervision that might reduce recidivism. The message to their victims is that these offenses were not serious enough to convict;
- There was one positive finding, that registration (but not online notification) was associated with a prevention or deterrent effect for adults. That is, two to three new sex crimes that would have been committed by first-time offenders were averted each month after the initial registration policy was implemented.
Moreover, registration and notification failed to have any effect on sexual or violent reoffending for juveniles or adults, possibly because sexual reoffense rates are already low (e.g., fewer than 5 percent of juveniles had new sex offense convictions over time). No initial deterrent effect was identified for juveniles. Thus, not only is community safety potentially compromised by dismissing, acquitting, or incorrectly charging offenders, community safety is not improved by reduced recidivism.
Although Letourneau and her colleagues demonstrated that registration and notification had unintended effects on prosecution of sex crime cases, they cannot definitively say why these changes occurred. Letourneau speculates that two characteristics of South Carolina's policy influenced these results. First, South Carolina's policy is based solely on the conviction offense. Second, once triggered by a conviction, South Carolina registration and notification requirements endure for life, with no exceptions. Thus, neither prosecutors nor judges are permitted any leeway once someone has been convicted of a sex crime; they cannot consider an individual's actual risk of sexual reoffense or any mitigating or extenuating circumstances. With their hands tied, and with such severe lifelong consequences, prosecutors, judges and possibly jury members appear to have identified alternative ways for keeping some juveniles and adults off the registry. A more equitable solution would be to revise the existing policy, both to take into consideration the research findings that have been generated during the past 15 years and to reduce the likelihood that judicial decisions makers will subvert the law.
Based on their results and other empirical studies, Letourneau and colleagues detail specific suggestions to strengthen registration and notification policies. Letourneau argues that objective risk assessments should influence registration and notification requirements for adults. Such requirements should be dropped or severely curtailed for juveniles, given the complete absence of any outcomes supporting these policies with juveniles and given very low juvenile recidivism rates. A policy that focuses primarily on high risk adult offenders-the type of offenders whose crimes spurred the creation of registration and notification policies in the first place-- is less likely to be subverted by judicial decision makers and more likely to have positive results on recidivism.
"This system is failing. No one, not victims, offenders, or the rest of us, is served well by laws so poorly designed that even prosecutors look for ways around them. It is easy to argue that sex offenders deserve what they get, including lifetime registration and public notification. But when such policies fail to reduce recidivism and at the same time cause the kinds of unintended effects that we have identified, it is time to look for new ways to prevent sexual violence," Letourneau said.