Are sex offenders who fail to register more likely to reoffend?

Levenson’s study suggests that there is virtually no empirical data to support a relationship between failure to register and recidivism

Published Aug. 17, 2010

Jill Levenson, B.A., M.S.W., Ph.D.A study published in June in the academic journal Justice Quarterly, “Failure to Register as a Sex Offender: Is it Associated with Recidivism?”, tested the common notion that sex offenders who fail to register are more dangerous and more likely to reoffend than properly registered sex offenders.

Despite the various laws established to help monitor sexual criminals (the Jacob Wettering Act of 1994, “Megan’s Law” of 1996, and the Adam Walsh Act of 2006), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has estimated that 100,000 or 16% of all convicted sex offenders can’t be located.

Jill Levenson, a psychology professor at Lynn University with an academic focus on sexual abuse and how offenders are categorized and treated who co-authored the study, said, “it is often assumed that sexual offenders who fail to register are especially dangerous because they are seemingly attempting to evade scrutiny and avoid detection.” However, virtually no empirical data exists to support that claim. “Of those who failed to register, 11% also had a sexual recidivism charge compared with 9% of compliant registrants; this was not a significant difference.”

The findings from this study support the authors’ suggestions that law enforcement resources might better be allocated toward helping sex offenders successfully reintegrate into society. “Provisions for stable and meaningful employment, housing and family support… might contribute more beneficially to public safety,” said the authors.

Other research conducted in Minnesota and New Jersey has found similar results, said Levenson, who added, "the punitive emphasis on registration enforcement might divert limited resources away from strategies that would better facilitate public protection from sexual violence."

This study was funded by the National Institute of Justice and was conducted in collaboration with Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina; Kevin Armstrong, a statistician at MUSC Family Services Research Center; and Kristen Zgoba, supervisor of research and evaluation at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, Office of Policy and Planning.

More on Levenson:

Levenson is an associate professor of psychology at Lynn University and a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience treating sexual abuse victims, survivors, perpetrators and non-offending parents. She is frequently quoted in national publications including the Associated Press and the Taunton Daily Gazette in Massachusetts, among others. Most recently, Levenson was quoted in The Wall Street Journal law blog, in reference to Georgia’s decision to soften sex offender laws. “It’s something states are still struggling with,” said Levenson.

Last summer (July 2009), Levenson was referenced in a Newsweek article and a BBC story that focused on a group of sexual offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway as a result of the housing restrictions imposed on them. She is considered a national expert on sexual violence and has published over 60 articles about sex crime policy and offender treatment.