In 1972, at the age of 21, Phillip Garrido had his first arrest. The charge: sexual assault of a minor. Four years later, he kidnapped and raped Katherine Callaway, a crime for which he received a 50-year sentence in the federal Leavenworth Penitentiary. During his trial, Garrido testified to masturbating while sitting outside middle schools and going on drug binges.

After serving 11 years in federal prison and an additional seven months in Nevada State Prison, he was released in 1988 to parole authorities in Contra Costa County, Calif. For much of the next 20 years, as befitting a convicted sexual predator placed on sex-offender registries, police and social workers often dropped by Garrido’s house.

Yet it wasn’t until a sharp-eyed official at the University of California-Berkeley became suspicious that police raided his house and discovered the awful truth: that Garrido was guilty of the 1991 kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard. Snatched off the street at age 11, Dugard was held in Garrido’s backyard for 19 years, where he repeatedly abused her and until she and two children he had fathered were rescued in 2011.

The story of how Garrido went undetected for so long ought to raise serious questions about one of the least controversial and most widely adopted criminal justice policies: sex-offender registration. Since public registration began in Minnesota in 1991, the federal government and all 50 states have adopted the practice. Those required to register are forbidden from living in certain areas, working in many professions and, in some cases, even from handing out candy on Halloween. Since widespread adoption of the registries has correlated with significant drops in rape and child abuse, there’s good reason to suspect they’ve helped to fight crime.

However, a growing body of research, which I summarize in a longer piece for National Affairs, makes clear the unintended consequences of this vastly popular policy. Fixing sex-offender registries in a way that helps law enforcement sift through the almost 90,000 registrants in California alone to target monsters like Garrido will require rethinking how these laws are used.

To start, states need to cut down on the clutter. Nicole Pittman of Impact Justice has documented that 40 states currently allow children adjudicated in juvenile court to be placed on registries—sometimes for life. This undermines the purpose of the juvenile justice system, which is based on second chances and rehabilitation. It also is deeply perverse, as most juveniles who end up on registries were guilty of nothing more than consensual sex with other teenagers or playing games of “doctor” they might not even have understood. Juvenile offenders should be removed from the registries, as should adults convicted of crimes like prostitution, public urination, consensual adult incest and kidnapping their own children in custody disputes. Placing these offenders on registries diverts critical public-safety resources and unnecessarily stigmatizes those who pose no threat to the public.

Moreover, access to sex-offender registration records should be limited to law enforcement, schools, medical licensing boards and the like rather than displayed to everyone with an internet connection. An extensive body of research shows that the only thing accomplished by public notification over the Internet is to harm property values in the neighborhoods where offenders live. Notification laws do nothing to change offenders’ behavior. This shouldn’t be surprising, since family members and family “friends,” not random strangers, commit the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults against children.

Restrictions on sex offenders should be designed to enhance public safety while also being tailored to fit individual circumstances. For example, it makes sense to ban offenders from working in schools or even from entering school grounds during school hours. On the other hand, forbidding them from living anywhere near a school does nothing to reduce assaults on school children.

Finally, given that some sex offenders – like Phillip Garrido – are both hugely dangerous and nearly impossible to treat, states should intensify efforts to monitor the worst of the worst. In particular, the 30 states that don’t currently have them should consider strictly limited “civil commitment” laws that create a formal process to hold the most dangerous offenders in hospital-like settings indefinitely, even after they’ve finished prison sentences. Proposals to require more stringent background checks for school employees – such as the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. – also deserve serious consideration.

Sex-offender registration laws have helped to reduce sexual violence, but at the cost of sometimes significant unintended consequences. Targeted reforms of these laws can help make America safer.

Featured Publications