A wide-ranging look at sex offender registration in PA and beyond

The Cumberland County (Pennsylvania) Sentinel recently published a series of articles by Joshua Vaughn that examine the operation and effect of sex offender registration laws from a variety of perspectives. We summarize the articles with links to the Sentinel’s website.

Finding statistics to fit a narrative

Original article

Vaughn traces the “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for untreated sex offenders that Justice Kennedy used to support the Supreme Court’s holdings in McKune v. Lile (2002) and Smith v. Doe (2003) to an unsourced “anecdotal quip” in a 1986 article from Psychology Today suggesting sex offender recidivism rates as high as 80%.  That figure found its way into a Justice Department practitioner’s guide for treating incarcerated sex offenders, which in turn was cited by the Solicitor General’s amicus brief in McKune. Vaughn, asking how such a questionable statistic could turn out to be a “linchpin fact” in two extremely influential Supreme Court cases, proposes that the Court relied on the Solicitor General, who in turn relied on the practice guide without doing his own research.

Vaughn reports that the Justice Department “now states on its website that the rate at which released sexual offenders are rearrested for new sexual offenses is as low as 3 to 10 percent,” evidently referring to a report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.


When facts aren’t facts: A look at the effectiveness of sexual offender registries

Original article

The second article in the series looks at the comparative costs and benefits of registries in light of the claimed high recidivism rates that are used to justify them. It notes the 2014 decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court holding unconstitutional a state law requiring long term registration of juveniles based on evidence showing juvenile recidivism rates between 2 and 7 percent.  The article also considers how registries might be reformed in light of what we now know about actual recidivism rates.


Registered man details a lifetime debt to society

Original article

The third article in the series offers a glimpse into one Pennsylvania man’s life on the registry.  After serving fifteen years in prison and losing his family, he has accepted the burdens of registration as a fact of life.  His days are now “spent trying to fly under the radar, not out of the oversight of police or for any nefarious purposes, but to try to regain some normalcy and a chance to build relationships in his life outside of prison.”


Family members speak out against sex offender registries

Original article

Vicki Henry, the founder of Women Against Registry, warns of the danger that public registration poses to registrants and their families.  In light of her own experience — her registrant son was the subject of unproven child pornography allegations — and reported incidents of violence against registrants, Henry says that “public registries have become a public hit list and do not provide the public with actual safety.”


A closer look at Pennsylvania’s sex offender registry

Original article

This article looks at the makeup of the Pennsylvania sex offender registry and the specific requirements to which registrants are subject.   There are currently over 19,000 people on the registry in Pennsylvania, 1,500 whom are classified as sexually violent predators.  Of those 1,500, two-thirds are currently incarcerated.  All registrants are subject to continual scrutiny from law enforcement, to public stigma, and to burdensome and intrusive notification requirements that can last from 15 years to a lifetime.