Research validates lack of publication for sexual offense registry

By Ken Nolley . . . The Register-Guard editorial on Oct. 20 noted that current policy limits online information about persons on the sex offender registry to high risk offenders.  The editorial saw this as a “shortcoming in state law,” which might suggest to some that this was merely an egregious oversight.  But whether one agrees with that policy or not, a look at how current policy came into existence reveals that is the result of thoughtful deliberation by a wide variety of constituencies and by the legislature.  In full disclosure, I should say that I have been involved in the implementation of the law and that I do have my own point of view.  But in this piece, my goal is simply to provide history and context for current policy.

In 2011, two bills were before the Legislature–HB 3340, which would have instituted residency restrictions for all persons on the registry, and SB 67, which would have put information about everyone on the registry online. Both bills died in committee. Lawmakers rejected both residency restrictions and  putting information about all registrants online after considering the unintended consequences of increased homelessness and joblessness that plague states whose restrictions of this sort are most severe.

Subsequently, the legislature set up a stakeholders’ work group to develop an evidence-based approach to the registry; it included law enforcement at state, county and local levels, treatment providers, county supervision, DAs, and public defenders.  The group was largely in agreement about the way forward, except for the district attorneys, and they got changes they wanted in HB 2549 which was enacted into law in 2013.  The bill was amended in 2015 and was implemented at the beginning of this year.

Multiple studies have explored the unintended consequences of public registries[i], and treatment providers and community corrections officers were especially aware of the ways in which notification complicated their work.  The final decision on notification requirements for different levels was the result of considerations that balanced the risk of reoffending with the collateral damage of destabilizing rehabilitation.

The Register-Guard editorial is correct that many states place their entire registry online.  But the work group and the Legislature chose a ground-breaking new path in placing risk assessment at the heart of our registry, focusing more attention and resources on those who pose the higher risks of reoffending.   Since 2015, the state has been assessing risk through  two widely used and validated risk assessment tools—the Static 99R for adult males, and the LS-CMI for females, juveniles and some non-contact offenders.

The system also allows for persons who have been offense-free for the required number of years to apply either for reclassification if they have been classified as level 2 or 3 (moderate or high) or for relief from the requirement to register if they are level 1.  But neither reclassification or relief is automatic.  Applicants must provide a great deal of specific evidence for the board to consider before reclassification or relief is granted.

It is a widespread public perception that anyone convicted of a sex crime is at high risk of reoffending forever, although the actuarial evidence suggests that persons on the registry vary widely in their risk of reoffending and that it is possible to distinguish the difference[ii]. The evidence also shows that risk declines predictably with time spent offense-free in the community.   Oregon’s policy is based upon those findings.

In 2017 the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission released a study on recidivism which showed that while 45% of all newly released offenders in Oregon were reconvicted for a new crime within three years, sex offenders reoffended with any crime at significantly less than half that rate—17%.  And the three-year rate of reconviction for another sex crime was just 1.8%.  Although this study only measures the first three years, it does at least suggest that not everyone on the registry poses a high risk of reoffending.  Oregon’s new system is built upon that recognition.

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[i] There is extensive literature on this subject.  Prominent researchers in this area include Richard Tewksbury, Kristen Zgoba, Jill Levenson, and Elizabeth LeTourneau (LeTourneau has focused particularly on the effects for children on the registry).  See Richard Tewksbury and others, “Sex Offenders:  Recidivism and Collateral Consequences, NCJRS, March 2012. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/238060.pdf

See also Jill Levenson and Leo Cotter,“The Effect of Megan’s Law on Sex Offender Reintegration,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 2005, Vol. 21(1):49-66.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241531174_The_Effect_of_Megan%27s_Law_on_Sex_Offender_Reintegration

[ii] Risk assessment is a very large field and there is a massive amount of research out there.  But since Oregon is committed to the Static 99R for adult males (who comprise the bulk of our registry), let me suggest the latest findings in this area.  See R. Karl Hanson and others, “Reductions in Risk Based on Time Offense-Free in the Community:  Once a Sexual Offender, Not Always a Sexual Offender,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2018. 2018, Vol. 24 (1): 48–63.   < https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/law-law0000135.pdf>

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Ken Nolley is a retired English and Film Studies professor from Willamette University where he served twice as an interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Before retiring, he served on the editorial boards of Literature/Film Quarterly and H-Film, and for a decade he was an accreditation visitor for the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. He has been a board member of Oregon Voices, NARSOL’S Oregon affiliate organization, since its founding in 2009.

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