By Steve Yoder . . . Quentin (not his real name) was convicted eight years ago of child pornography possession in Florida. He served his time and has since moved to another state. But his sentence required his photo and other personal details to appear on Florida’s sex offender registry, and there they will stay for the rest of his life, even if he never sets foot in the state again.
The state’s registry is padded with thousands of Quentins, people who don’t live in Florida. Under a change to state law passed this spring, there will soon be more: Starting July 1, out-of-state registrants who visit for at least three days (down from five) must go to a sheriff’s office to have their personal details added to Florida’s list. If they don’t, they face a third-degree felony.
Rules like that aren’t unique—22 other states keep out-of-state visitors on their registries for life, according to a study released last November. It’s one reason state lists misrepresent the actual number of people with sex-crime records living in communities. As already-bloated lists keep ballooning, they feed the impression of a growing population of dangerous people who require ever-more-extreme laws to monitor and control.
On May 30, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) released its latest nationwide count of names on state sex offender registries. For the first time ever, the total was more than 900,000. NCMEC spokesperson Staca Shehan told The Appeal the organization doesn’t share data on growth trends because changes in state laws and other anomalies can make it difficult to accurately compare the data across years. But calculations by William Dobbs of Dobbs Wire, who tracks sex-offender registry developments nationwide, show a 3 percent jump in the nationwide number in the last six months. That’s slightly faster than in the past; increases have fluctuated between about 3 and 5 percent annually since 2007. Even if the growth rate returns to that historical average, by 2021 more than a million names will be on registries.
Many of those entries are duplicates like Quentin or represent people who are not actually part of a state’s population for some other reason. In a 2014 study in the journal Crime & Delinquency, a research team found that in the 42 states and two territories studied, 19 percent of those on registries were still behind bars, 9 percent lived out of state, and 3 percent had been deported. Of Florida’s 55,000 registrants at the time, more than 31,000 were in one of those three categories. “It’s a concern of ours,” Shehan said of problems with the count. She says NCMEC has no way of knowing how often an offender shows up on multiple state lists. “So that means then there’s duplicated offenders in our grand total,” she said. “And we have no way of knowing how often that happens.”
Dobbs, an adviser to the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center affiliated with the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, says the inaccuracies are symptoms of a malignant logic at the heart of registries: that people who have served their time should be put on public lists because of the ineffable risk of what they might do in the future. Problems with registries can’t be fixed, he says, because the concept itself is a “broken” one. “It turns people into suspects forever—or at least as long as they’re on it,” he said. “The politicians have created this giant naming-and-shaming train and are fueling it with fear.”
One of Quentin’s cousins is getting married in October and invited him to be in the wedding in Florida, says Quentin’s mother. But to participate in the various events, he would need to stay more than three days—meaning a trip to the local sheriff’s office to get a new photo taken and have the address where he’s staying and the license plates of any cars he will drive added to Florida’s public registry. So Quentin is skipping the wedding.