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Expert: Crime registries turn people into pariahs with ‘very little to lose’

New types of registries are being created around the country, despite research showing they don’t work.

A sign posted in Wapello, Iowa, in response to Megan’s LawBill Whittaker/CC-BY-SA-3.0

On November 19, 2009, Brittany Passalacqua and her mother, Helen Buchel, were found brutally murdered, slashed multiple times with a boxcutter, in their Geneva, New York, home. Prosecutors charged John Brown, Buchel’s boyfriend at the time, with the two murders and won the case.

Buchel’s family members say they were unaware of Brown’s criminal history, which included a conviction for injuring his baby daughter in 2003. After their daughter’s murder, Buchel’s family began to organize for a new registry for New York State, one that would track people convicted of domestic violence-related felonies. Since 2011, the New York State Legislature has considered the proposal—called Brittany’s Law—and every year, including this one, it has failed to pass. Yet, Buchel’s family is undeterred.

While public sex offender registries are now required by federal law, other registries for people who have committed certain types of crimes—such as domestic violence or drug-related crimes—are on the rise. They are seen by some victims’ rights advocates as a way to protect the community. But, criminal justice advocates argue that the registries are just another way to assert control over people who have already served their time. With registries, the collateral consequences of incarceration can extend indefinitely.

The sex offender registry as we now know it was born of a law that required states to keep lists of people convicted of sex crimes against children. At the time, it was seen as a necessary tool for law enforcement and was part of a crime package signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Megan’s Law, which expanded the 1994 law to require registries open to the public, was signed in 1996. And 10 years later, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which codified and strengthened the registry requirement. (Adam Walsh’s father hosted “America’s Most Wanted.”)

Now, everyone could know who had been convicted of sex crimes, which includes not just sexual assaults, but sex with underage youth and viewing child pornography. People on the registries face a variety of restrictions: They must register regularly and cannot live in certain areas (usually within a certain distance of a school, playground, or daycare), and they cannot take certain jobs. Their pictures and addresses are available for anyone to find on the internet. Many on the registry can’t find housing and become homeless. Some have also been the victims of vigilantism.

Yet, several states seem intent on expanding registries to people found guilty of other crimes. At least five states (Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana) have violent offender registries; Ohio is contemplating one. Some states have them for meth (Tennessee and Kansas), others for drunken driving (Ohio’s has over 5,000 people on it). Florida has a “career offender” registry for people convicted of three violent crimes or who have been designated a “habitual violent felony offender” by a state court. Some jurisdictions require registration for narrower categories of offenses like violent crimes against children or animals.

Most of these registries don’t have the same types of restrictions as sex offender registries—they rarely limit where one lives or works, for instance—but they still hold consequences. For example, some require that registrants, even those convicted as teens, update their addresses every year and pay a fee or risk having their probation revoked. And, as with sex offender registries, those listed have their names, addresses, places of employment, and sometimes pictures posted online.

Like the registry proposed under Brittany’s Law, nearly all registries are inspired by horrific crimes. In Oklahoma, for example, the violent offender registry was born out of a man’s gruesome murder of his elderly neighbor; the victim’s children argued that they should have been able to find out that their mother lived next door to someone convicted of manslaughter.

But do these registries work? It’s not clear how many people altogether are in these databases, nor how regularly they are maintained and updated. Although there has been little analysis of these new registries, specifically, a growing body of research reveals that there’s little to no proof that sex offender registries protect people as envisioned. J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School who has studied sex offender registries, told The Appeal that, even though there is a modicum of evidence that public registries may have some deterrent effect on potential offenders, any benefit is more than offset by the increased recidivism risk from those who are publicly listed. Public registration exacerbates known criminogenic risk factors (like poor housing, unemployment, social isolation and poverty), and larger public registries appear to result in more rather than fewer sex crimes.

“Knowing whom an offender is or where an offender lives might give a few people a leg up at protecting themselves,” Prescott said. “But almost everyone on a public registry is transformed into a pariah and has very little to lose, and so is at higher risk of reoffending.”

Even Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, whose efforts after the 1989 abduction and death of her son helped lead to the sex offender registry, now says that she thinks the list is counterproductive. She told APM Reports, “Locking them up forever, labeling them, and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. I’ve turned 180 (degrees) from where I was.”

One group opposing Brittany’s Law was the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which surprised some of the bill’s proponents. The coalition issued a statement arguing that domestic violence registries offer a “false sense of security” and that such registries “are reactionary rather than preventative” because they ignore the complex psychology behind domestic abuse. Prescott agrees, pointing out that in most cases, domestic violence victims don’t need more information about abusers, but rather help escaping dangerous situations.

But, perhaps the most significant strike against registries is the damage they do to the people on them, who have done their prison time and are trying to reintegrate into society. Vincent Brumley was put on a registry after being released in 2015 from an Illinois prison where he served time for his participation in a kidnapping and homicide.“That’s all they see me as,” he said in a 2016 interview. “They don’t know what I was convicted of, or if I was guilty. I did my time. Why hold me back?”