By Joshua Vaughn . . . The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to rule on five cases this year that could change how the state treats people convicted of sex offenses, and could ease the state’s sex offense registry restrictions, commonly referred to as Megan’s Law.
But in a December opinion piece, State Attorney General Josh Shapiro warned that if the court were to “dismantle” the state’s sex offense registry it would “put the public at risk,” and Pennsylvania could become a “safe haven” for people convicted of a sexual offense.
“A loss [for the state] in even one of [the cases] would be a loss for children’s safety across our state,” he wrote in the Morning Call, an Allentown newspaper.
Shapiro’s assertions that the state and its residents would be in danger if the registry goes away is not born out in fact, said Kelly Socia, a professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
“The research that we have shows that there is very little evidence registries help to reduce sex crimes,” Socia told The Appeal. “It’s not just that they aren’t preventing sex crimes but they are not reducing sex crimes at all.”
“I don’t think the public should be concerned if the registry goes away,” he said. . . .
Shapiro is defending the sex offense registry and civil commitment laws in all of the cases awaiting review by the state Supreme Court. When asked for the evidence he used to assert that the registry is good for public safety, Shapiro told The Appeal, “Obviously the sex offender registry is a public safety resource” that is “a crucial part of protecting the public.” He did not respond to a follow-up request for any studies or research to back his claims.
Socia pointed to three factors to explain why sex offense registries do not work to bolster public safety: People convicted of sexual offenses are unlikely to reoffend, most sexual offenses are committed by people not on the registry, and most sexual offenses are committed by people the victim knows, not a stranger.
The general public tends to believe people convicted of sexual offenses are highly likely to reoffend, Socia said, but that is simply not the case. Studies have found that fewer than 8 percent of people convicted of sexual offenses are arrested for a new sexual offense within five years.
This mimics findings in Pennsylvania from nearly four decades before the first official sex offense registry was created in the state. In 1948, parole departments began tracking individuals under their supervision who had been convicted of sexual offenses. More than 1,400 people were registered and tracked from 1948 to 1955. Fewer than 4 percent of those people “repeated sex crimes” during that time, and fewer than one percent involved an act of violence, according to a 1955 report from then-Governor George Leader. . . .
There are currently more than 20,000 people on Pennsylvania’s sex offense registry. Most of the people on the registry are men, who range in age from 18 to more than 90 years old. More than 200 people are on the registry for offenses they committed as children.
For Theresa Robertson, chairperson of the Pennsylvania Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws, a nonprofit that advocates for reform of sex offense policies, the registry means that when her son, who is now in his early 30s, soon moves into her home, the home will be listed on the registry.
Robertson’s son was convicted of a sex offense nearly a decade ago. According to Robertson, her son and his girlfriend recorded themselves having sex. He was 19 and his girlfriend was 17. After the two broke up, Robertson’s son posted the video on the internet, and he was charged with production and distribution of child pornography, she said. The conviction has led to him losing custody of his children. Robertson has had to sue for partial custody to be in her grandchildren’s lives because of the fallout from her son’s sex offense charge. She said the registry stigmatizes the families and children of people listed on it and does nothing to further public safety.
“The evidence is clear,” she said. “What we have going now, especially with the registry, does not work. [The laws] don’t keep our community safe, our children safe and they actually make things worse for children of people on a public registry.”