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Failure-to-Comply Arrests Reveal Flaws in Sex Offender Registries

In one Pennsylvania county, more than three times as many people on the registry were charged in 2016 with failing to follow registry requirements than were charged with a new sexual offense

A Pennsylvania State Police vehicle
Raymond Clarke Images/Flickr

Failure-to-Comply Arrests Reveal Flaws in Sex Offender Registries

In one Pennsylvania county, more than three times as many people on the registry were charged in 2016 with failing to follow registry requirements than were charged with a new sexual offense


In January 2015, Franklin Barrick packed his bags and moved out of his home near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, leaving his wife behind. For most, the end of a marriage would bring divorce proceedings in civil court, but for Barrick it yielded felony criminal charges.

Why?

Because Barrick is on the sex offender registry. In 2007, he was arrested for having sexual conversations via internet chat programs and sending sexual images to a person who he thought was a 13-year-old girl but turned out to be agents with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. As a registrant, Barrick must alert police when he changes his residence, purchases a new vehicle, attends school, or even opens a Facebook account.

So when Barrick failed to alert authorities after he left his wife, he was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with felony failure to comply with sex offender registry requirements. In April 2015, he was taken into police custody and held for nearly 200 days in Franklin County Jail on $60,000 cash bail set by the judge.

Later, Barrick pleaded guilty to two counts of felony conduct relating to sexual offenders—failure to notify—and was sentenced to 11 to 23 months’ confinement plus 21 years’ probation. He was also ordered by pay more than $2,000 in fines and fees.

Hundreds of people every year in Pennsylvania are arrested and face incarceration for failing to comply with sex offender registry requirements. People on the registry are required to provide their address, work information, information about vehicles they drive, social media accounts, and other personal information, as well as regularly have their photograph taken by police. When any of that information changes, police must be notified within three days. The Appeal identified nearly 900 criminal cases where a defendant was charged with failure to comply with sex offender registry requirements in Pennsylvania in 2016 alone.

But sex offender registry laws do not increase public safety, says Chrysanthi Leon, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “We’re really creating a false sense of security for ourselves when we convince ourselves that by detecting and naming and then further surveilling this small group of people will solve any problems,” Leon told The Appeal. Leon said most charged sexual offenses are committed by first-time sexual offenders and not by people who are on the registry.

Barrick is just such a first-time offender. After being caught in the internet sting by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office in 2007, he entered a guilty plea to four counts of felony unlawful contact with minors and was sentenced to 21 years’ probation. There is no record that Barrick engaged in similar conversations with minors afterward or committed any act of sexual violence. His only other arrest was for a decades-old charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. Furthermore, there is nothing in court records to indicate that Barrick made any effort to commit a new offense, sexual or otherwise, while away from his home in 2015.

A study conducted of sexual crimes in New York by Jeffrey Sandler, Kelly Socia, and Naomi Freeman in 2008 found more than 95 percent of registerable sexual offenses and more than 94 percent of sexual offenses against children in the state are committed by first-time offenders. The researchers reviewed more than 170,000 charged sexual offenses in the state between 1986 and 2006.

The Appeal’s review of charging records in Franklin County yielded similar results. An analysis of all charged criminal sexual offenses in the county in 2016 found only three cases where a defendant was on the registry when a new offense was committed. And more than 96 percent of defendants charged with a sexual offense in 2016 had no criminal history of sexual violence.

“Focusing attention and resources on the small number of known, registered sex offenders detracts attention from the more common types of sexual offenses that occur, leaving people vulnerable to sexual abuse and creating a false sense of security,” the sex-crime study authors wrote.

Indeed, there is a large body of research demonstrating that people who are charged and convicted of sexual offenses—the only people listed in the registry—have a low risk of reoffending. A 2016 report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found the sexual reoffense rate for people convicted of rape was less than 6 percent. In a study led by Kristen Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, researchers found that the implementation Megan’s Law—which created sex offender registries in all 50 states—and registry requirements in the state had no demonstrable effect on reducing sexual victimization or reoffending but cost the state more than $4 million to continue as of 2006.

Despite evidence that sexual offenses are not committed by the people named on sex offender registries and that registries are an ineffective but expensive way to prevent sex crimes, police and prosecutors continue to file felony charges and incarcerate people for technical violation of registry requirements.

In Franklin County, more than three times as many people on the sex offender registry were charged failing to comply with registry requirements in 2016 than were charged with a new sexual offense, The Appeal found. “We’ve used the registry as though it’s a risk prediction tool, or a public safety tool,” Leon, the criminal justice professor, said, “and it doesn’t function that way.”