A study on the unintended effects of sex offender laws.

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Aug. 31 2011 4:39 PM

Do Our Laws Encourage Sex Offenders?

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Does Megan’s Law work? Does notifying a community that a sex offender lives in its midst actually reduce sex crimes? A new study in the Journal of Law and Economics says it may not.

Two researchers have looked at laws that that require authorities to notify citizens when convicted rapists, molesters, pedophiles, and the like move into their neighborhoods. Looking at national crime statistics, J.J. Prescott of the University of Michigan and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University found that while registering sex offenders appears to be a good thing – it enables police to better monitor them -- notifying the public is not always a good thing. Public notification may scare away those inclined to be future offenders. But it appears to actually increase the likelihood that convicted sex offenders will offend again.

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How can this be?

In this 2010 preliminary paper Prescott and Rockoff theorize that sex offender notification laws may increase recidivism rates because offenders figure things can’t get any worse for them than they already are. Life on a sex offender notification list tends to result in “loss of employment, housing, or social ties,” as well as “stress, loneliness, and depression.” Presumably, criminals figure that they’re already living out the punishment, so why not commit another crime? The researchers suggest it’s also possible that a marginalized life outside prison may make prison life relatively more attractive. If the researchers are right and the unintended consequences of notification lists is more crime, it’s well worth wondering whether they’re worth keeping.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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