R Street just signed a letter calling for commonsense reform of the California sex-offender registry, based on a bill proposed by our friend and Legislative Advisory Board member Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine.

The bill we’re supporting in California, backed strongly by our own research, creates a tiered system for adult sex offenders. This is a step in the right direction to reform California’s overgrown and overly large sex-offender registry. A registry that includes too many people is likely even worse than one that includes too few: it diverts resources toward monitoring low-risk people that should be devoted to monitoring the relative handful of truly dangerous offenders. The best available research on sex-offender registries, which I summarized in this article for National Affairs, indicates that risk-based approaches like the one contemplated in the bill are good public policy.

While taking this first step is important, it doesn’t solve what is likely the single biggest problem with sex-offender registries: their inclusion of offenders who were adjudicated as juveniles. As I’ve written about here with my friends Nicole Pittman and Stacie Rumenap, it’s unjust, cruel and undermines the purpose of the juvenile justice system—which, at least in theory, is supposed to act in offenders’ own best interests. Youth registration, as R Street research has shown, costs millions of dollars more than it could possibly save. It’s the single greatest inefficiency in our sex-offender registration system.

The California bill is a good start, but it’s only a start. If the Golden State really wants to fix its registry, it’s going to have to end the registration of children.


Image by Jeffrey B. Banke