The costs and benefits of subjecting juveniles to sex-offender registration and notification

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Every state and territory in the United States has registration and notification laws that apply to adults convicted of, and juveniles adjudicated delinquent for, certain sex offenses. Most jurisdictions enacted these laws on their own, but expanded them in response to the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 (AWA).

Registration laws require offenders to appear in person to provide identifying information (e.g., fingerprints, DNA samples) and, at least once a year, to provide an updated current photograph. States vary with respect to the kinds of additional information they require, but the list is extensive. An in-person update also is required for any covered change in life circumstances. These include changes in residential, school, work or email addresses, screen names and even blog avatars.

The time allowed to complete each update is short. Failure to register or update an existing registration is itself a felony. Offenders may be covered by multiple states, each with its own rules and procedures. Notification laws make some of this information publicly available via the Internet.

Registration is calculated to produce about $200 million in social benefits per year. Social costs are calculated to range from $200 million to $2 billion, depending on the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. Thus, net benefits are calculated to range from -$40 million to -$1 billion per year, with present-value net benefits that range from -$2 billion to -$20 billion. This result depends on a small number of parameters. First, based on the best available study in the literature, which applies to all sex offenders and not just juveniles, registration is assumed to have reduced sex-offense recidivism by about one-eighth. This translates into an annual reduction of about 800 major sex offenses committed by juveniles.

Notification is estimated to produce no social benefits, with social costs per-year that range from $10 billion to $40 billion and present-value costs that range from -$100 billion to -$600 billion. About three-fourths of these costs are borne by sex offenders’ neighbors. This occurs because living near a registered sex offender – whether an adult or juvenile – has a substantial “disamenity” value. Costs imposed on juvenile offenders are calculated to range from $400 million to $2 billion per year. Costs on their families are calculated to add another 50 percent to these amounts. Additional costs on third parties are calculated as: $3 billion per year on employers for registry searches; $100-$500 million on employers for adaption and mitigation of employment issues; and $200 million to $1 billion on the public for registry searches.

Because notification cannot produce net benefits, the qualitative prospective benefit-cost analysis focuses on ways to reduce the social costs of notification. A number of reform alternatives warrant consideration to reduce the substantial net social costs of notification. These alternatives involve exempting certain fractions of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. High-quality risk assessment is necessary to minimize false positives.

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