History of Sex Offender Registration in the United States

Sex crime laws have existed as far back as biblical times, with early laws regulating behaviors which are considered “normal” today. Early societies defined “deviant behavior” to include contraception, interracial relationships, homosexuality, and heterosexual relationships between those not legally married to each other.1 The penalties for these crimes were shaped largely by the prevailing economic and puritanical views of the time, ranging from fines to castration to death.

Sex offender registration, on the other hand, is a much newer concept based on myths and fear. Early sex offender registration laws were developed based upon fear of homosexuality, while later laws seized upon sensational accounts of child abductions, rapes, and murders.

The 1930s were a time of unparalleled economic instability. The national media sensationalized a series of high profile cases between 1930 and 1950, creating the appearance of a violent crime wave. This era has been referred to as “the Sexual Psychopath Era.”2

This era is marked by the rise of psychiatric influence in policy-making based upon the myth that “sex killers” were prevalent in all walks of society.3 As a result, a number of reactionary laws and strategies designed to handle the perceived crime wave, including civil commitment laws, lists of known sex offenders, and castration laws were introduced.4

Early “Gangster laws” in California during this period required known convicts to register their addresses with law enforcement; by 1949, the California register was expanded to include homosexual acts. The 1940s and 1950s also marked a period of political hysteria known as McCarthyism, and lists of unpopular people were here to stay.

1 Derek Logue, Monsters, Inc: A Concise History of Sex Offender Laws (OnceFallen.com, Dec. 18,
2012), http://www.oncefallen.com/history.html.
2 Supra.
3 The Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
4 Supra.

History of Sex Offender Registration in Ohio

Since 1963, Ohio has had a sex offender registration statute (former ORC §2950, 130 Ohio Laws 669). Since 1994, when seven-year old Megan Kanka of Hamilton, New Jersey, was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender who lived in her neighborhood, states throughout the United States adopted “Megan’s Laws” that provide community notice about sex offenders.

Ohio’s original SORN Law, House Bill 180, was adopted in 1996. Ohio’s Megan’s Law was then amended by Senate Bill 175 which became effective on May 7, 2002. The law authorized a judge to classify offenders based on their likelihood to commit a sexual offense again, a “risk-based classification.”

On June 30, 2007, Senate Bill 10 was signed into law in Ohio to implement the federal Adam Walsh Child and Safety Protection Act of 2006. The purpose of the Adam Walsh Act (AWA) is to create stricter requirements for SORN Law in hopes of preventing offenders from slipping through the cracks and hurting children. Senate Bill 10 created an “offense-based classification system.” The offense-based classification system turns on the tier of the offense committed ranging from least severe (Tier I) to most severe (Tier III) in determining an offender’s registration and notification requirements.

In January 2010, Ohio was the only state in compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), the Title I portion of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. SORNA is a three-tiered system, ranking sex offenders based upon the severity of the committed offense. Each tier requires a different time span for which the sex offender must be registered and imposes distinct verification appearance requirements. While jurisdictions need not label their sex offenders according to SORNA’s three-tiered system, a jurisdiction must ensure that sex offenders who meet the substantive criteria for placement in a particular tier are, at a minimum, subject to “the duration of registration, frequency of in-person appearances for verification, and extent of website disclosure that SORNA requires for that tier.”

The County Sheriff is responsible under Ohio law for the registration of sex offenders. Sex offenders must register with the County Sheriff on scheduled periodic basis, which is determined by their sex offender Tier classification. In addition, sex offenders must register with the County Sheriff any change of residential address, place of employment, or enrollment in a school or institution of higher education.

Tier sex offender classifications are determined based upon criminal conviction of offenses and criteria outlined in the table below. (See Ohio Offense Tiers at the end of this article).

Reading Materials: Derek Logue, Timeline of Sex Offender History (OnceFallen.com, Dec. 26, 2012), http://www.oncefallen.com/timeline.html.

Modern Day Sex Offender Registration is Counter-Productive and Should Be Abolished

The “violent crime wave” reached a peak in 1973, and has been steadily declining since then.1 Nevertheless, a series of high-profile abductions of children in the 1990s motivated a series of national registration laws. These laws include the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994, Megan’s Law in 1996 and the Adam Walsh Act in 2006. Evidence indicates the incidence of sexual assault was already declining prior to enactment of these laws.

Yet even as the incidence of sexual offenses has decreased, the number and type of offenses included in sex offender registration has increased. Over 900,000 individuals are registered nationally, and over 18,000 are registered in Ohio, many for low-level misdemeanors, consensual acts or non-contact crimes.2

Registration periods vary from 15 years to life, despite evidence that sex offender recidivism is lower for sexual offenses than for any other crime besides murder3 and that the majority of re-offenses, if any, occur within the first three years.4 The re-offense rate after 15 years is statistically negligible, and evidence indicates that offenders “age out” of criminal activity decades before they die or are removed for the sex offender registry.5

The result of studies on the effectiveness of sex offender registration to protect society and prevent recidivism have been mixed, at best, with many studies showing no effect on the commission of sexual offenses.6 Stricter registration laws and policies such as residency restrictions have been proven to marginalize the registered population, resulting in greater risk to society.7

Registration cannot prevent the vast majority of sexual offenses. Evidence shows that 93% of sexual offenses are against children are committed by persons known to the victim.8 Registration of these individuals does nothing to protect the victim, and “stranger danger” only creates meaningless hysteria to those who are not at risk in the first place.

Evidence shows that past sexual behavior is not the best predictor of future sexual activity. 95% of sexual offenses are committed by individuals who are not on the sex offender registry.9 Reliance solely on sex offender registration creates a false sense of security and does nothing to prevent future harm.10

1 Jessica Wheeler, Revisit: A Review of National Crime Victim Victimization Findings on Rape and Sexual Assault (Council on Contemporary Families, updated November 21, 2017) using data from FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program and Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) from 1973-2010.
2 See attached Ohio Offense Tiers.
3 Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 | April 2014 Table 8 at p. 8.
4 Sex Offender Classification and Treatment In Ohio Prisons (Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, 2006) https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/sex%20offender%20classification%20and%20treatment%20in%20ohio%20pri
5 A Better Path to Community Safety: Sex Offender Registration in California. 2014. California Sex Offender Management Board
6 Lobanov-Rostovsky: Adult Sex Offender Management: Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative Research Brief (Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking, U.S. Department of Justice, July 2015) https://smart.gov/pdfs/AdultSexOffenderManagement.pdf.
7 Supra; See also Prescott, J. J. Do Sex Offender Registries Make Us Less Safe? Regulation 35, no. 2 (2012): 48-55 https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1078&context=articles.
8 Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics © RAINN 2019 https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence.
9 Sandler: Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State’s sex offender registration and notification law (APA PschNET © 2019 American Psychological Association).
10 See Wilson, The Expansion of Criminal Registries and the Illusion of Control Louisiana Law Review Vol. 73 (2012-2013) > No. 2 (2013) https://digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/lalrev/vol73/iss2/7/.