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Five Cases Could Significantly Reform Pennsylvania’s Sex Offense Registry. The State’s Attorney General Is Pushing Back.

Josh Shapiro has warned that changing the state’s sex offense registry requirements threatens public safety. But experts say his fears are unfounded and the registry provides little to no public safety benefit.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh ShapiroPhoto illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to rule on five cases this year that could change how the state treats people convicted of sex offenses, and could ease the state’s sex offense registry restrictions, commonly referred to as Megan’s Law. 

But in a December opinion piece, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro warned that if the court were to “dismantle” the state’s sex offense registry it would “put the public at risk,” and Pennsylvania could become a “safe haven” for people convicted of a sexual offense.

“A loss [for the state] in even one of [the cases] would be a loss for children’s safety across our state,” he wrote in the Morning Call, an Allentown newspaper.

Shapiro’s assertions that the state and its residents would be in danger if the registry goes away is not born out in fact, said Kelly Socia, a professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“The research that we have shows that there is very little evidence registries help to reduce sex crimes,” Socia told The Appeal. “It’s not just that they aren’t preventing sex crimes but they are not reducing sex crimes at all.”

“I don’t think the public should be concerned if the registry goes away,” he said.

Megan’s Law, which in 1996 created the first public database of people convicted of sexual offenses in the state, has gone through several changes. In 2004, the registry became publicly available on the internet. And in 2012, the law expanded to include more crimes for which someone could end up on the registry and made registration requirements more stringent, bringing the state in compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

But over the last five years, the state Supreme Court and state appellate courts have weakened registry restrictions through a series of rulings. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone under the age of 18 cannot be subject to lifetime registration. In 2017, the court found that the 2012 SORNA update to the state’s sex offender law was punishment and could not be imposed retroactively. In October of last year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that people who were convicted when they were adults for crimes they committed when they were children could not be placed on the registry for life.

The research that we have shows that there is very little evidence registries help to reduce sex crimes.

Kelly Socia criminology professor

The five cases currently before the Supreme Court would further reform the registry requirements. One case is challenging the 2012 SORNA update again, this time on constitutional grounds. Two other cases argue that an update to comply with the court’s 2017 ruling still qualifies as punishment. One case seeks to undo the state’s sexually violent “predator” designation that subjects people on the registry to heightened reporting and notification standards. And another case challenges the state’s civil commitment law as it applies to minors, which allows authorities to hold people convicted of sexual offenses in prison beyond the end of their sentence.

Shapiro is defending the sex offense registry and civil commitment laws in all of the cases awaiting review by the state Supreme Court. When asked for the evidence Shapiro used to assert that the registry is good for public safety, Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for Shapiro, told The Appeal, “Obviously the sex offender registry is a public safety resource” that is “a crucial part of protecting the public.” She did not respond to a follow-up request for any studies or research to back his claims.

Socia pointed to three factors to explain why sex offense registries do not work to bolster public safety: People convicted of sexual offenses are unlikely to reoffend, most sexual offenses are committed by people not on the registry, and most sexual offenses are committed by people the victim knows, not a stranger.

The general public tends to believe people convicted of sexual offenses are highly likely to reoffend, Socia said, but that is simply not the case. Studies have found that fewer than 8 percent of people convicted of sexual offenses are arrested for a new sexual offense within five years

This mimics findings in Pennsylvania from nearly four decades before the first official sex offense registry was created in the state. In 1948, parole departments began tracking individuals under their supervision who had been convicted of sexual offenses. More than 1,400 people were registered and tracked from 1948 to 1955. Fewer than 4 percent of those people “repeated sex crimes” during that time, and fewer than one percent involved an act of violence, according to a 1955 report from then-Governor George Leader.

Studies have found that fewer than 8 percent of people convicted of sexual offenses are arrested for a new sexual offense within five years.

Socia also said the vast majority of people arrested for a sexual offense are not on the registry and typically have never been arrested for a sexual offense before. In a 2008 paper, Socia and others found more than 95 percent of people arrested for sexual offenses in New York between 1986 and 2006 were individuals who had never been arrested for a sex crime before. The Appeal found similar results for people arrested for sexual offenses in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in 2016.

Finally, Socia said the majority of sexual offenses, especially those against children, are not committed by strangers. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 80 percent of sexual assaults of children are committed by family members or people the child knows.

Shapiro wrote in his opinion piece that the registry helps people know if there is a person on the registry living in a neighboring apartment or down the street from where they leave their children while they work. However, Socia explained, the person down the street is not who is most likely to harm a child. “It’s not the typical stranger-danger myth,” he said.

Research in other states has found that registries also do little to prevent sex crimes. A 2008 study of the sex offense registry in New Jersey found it had no effect in reducing recidivism by people convicted of sexual offense or reducing the number of victims of sexual assault. Similarly, a study in Texas using data from 1977 through 2012 found that sex offender registration policies have had no effect on the rate of sexual offenses.

There are currently more than 20,000 people on Pennsylvania’s sex offense registry. Most of the people on the registry are men, who range in age from 18 to more than 90 years old. More than 200 people are on the registry for offenses they committed as children.

For Theresa Robertson, chairperson of the Pennsylvania Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws, a nonprofit that advocates for reform of sex offense policies, the registry means that when her son, who is now in his early 30s, soon moves into her home, the home will be listed on the registry.

Robertson’s son was convicted of a sex offense nearly a decade ago. According to Robertson, her son and his girlfriend recorded themselves having sex. He was 19 and his girlfriend was 17. After the two broke up, Robertson’s son posted the video on the internet, and he was charged with production and distribution of child pornography, she said. The conviction has led to him losing custody of his children. Robertson has had to sue for partial custody to be in her grandchildren’s lives because of the fallout from her son’s sex offense charge. She said the registry stigmatizes the families and children of people listed on it and does nothing to further public safety.

“The evidence is clear,” she said. “What we have going now, especially with the registry, does not work. [The laws] don’t keep our community safe, our children safe and they actually make things worse for children of people on a public registry.”

While Shapiro may be taking a law-and-order approach to the sex offense registry, other top prosecutors in the country are not. In February, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed amicus briefs in two cases before the state Supreme Court that challenge the state’s sex offense policies. In a statement, she argued in favor of rolling back those laws, saying they were overly broad and lead to shaming and ostracizing people on the registry.

“Simply put,” Nessel said in the statement, “the state Sex Offender Registration Act has gone far beyond its purpose and now imposes burdens that are so punitive in their effect that they negate the State’s public safety justification.”

In reference to Nessel, Socia said: “Those kinds of stances need to be rewarded by legislators, politicians and public officials. When they are actually talking research, that should be supported and not just this appeal for safety for safety’s sake.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a remark to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The remark was made by Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for his office.