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Sex Offender Registry

“Even though this happened a long time ago, I feel I should report what my brother did so he can be put on the sex offender registry to warn and protect other children.”


“If we make a report, will my son end up labeled a sex offender for life?  He’s only 14 years old!” 


“Can I ask police to put him on the registry but not charge him with a crime? 

I don’t want him to go to jail, I just want to protect others.”


The US sex offender registry system is extremely complex and widely misunderstood. The vague image of a sex offender that most people carry in their minds turns out to be quite different than the actual reality. Here is some basic information, and resources to find more. (I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.)


Can a person be listed on the registry without being charged?

NO  An individual must be both charged and convicted, via trial or pleading guilty, of an offense that requires them to register.


Can the victim who reports a crime determine whether the person who violated them is listed as a sex offender?

NO. The attorney prosecuting for the state will decide what offenses can be charged, based on the law and the evidence available. Often they will take the victim’s wishes into consideration, but they do not or cannot always follow them.  Whether or not the person ends up on the registry depends on whether they are actually convicted, and of which crime.


Can people who offend as minors end up on the sex offender registry?

YES. The laws affecting this vary widely from state to state. It is highly advised to consult a local defense attorney who specializes in sex offenses and juvenile law.

How does being listed on the sex offender registry affect someone's life?

  • Employment--it restricts what kinds of jobs or licenses they can hold; potential employers can see their offense and registry status on background checks

  • Housing--they may not be able to live within a certain distance of schools or parks; landlords will see their offense and registry status on background checks

  • Harassment--if their address shows up on a map or list of sex offender residences, they may be shunned, targeted for harassment, or even become victims of vigilante violence

  • Social--sex offender registrants are often barred from being in places where children congregate. They may have difficulties attending their own children’s school events or participating in religious gatherings. Meeting new people and maintaining appropriate friendships and romantic relationships can be very complicated.

  • Travel--those required to register as sex offenders need to follow rules about moving or traveling across state lines and internationally. Their registry status may be required to be shown on their driver’s license or passport.

  • Family--the family of someone listed as a sex offender is also greatly affected by limits on housing, employment, and travel options, and they also experience harassment and stigma by association or physical proximity.  


Does the sex offender registry protect children?

Generally, current US criminal sex offender registries are an ineffective tool. Sex offender registry laws are created to prevent repeat offenses, especially by strangers. But the vast majority of sexual violence against children is done by those who have never been convicted before and who are well known to the child victims. There are currently so many people required to register that it is hard for law enforcement to focus on the smaller group who present a high risk to the public. Many registry restrictions are actually counter-productive to public safety. Past offenders who are socially isolated, depressed, unemployed, or homeless are actually more likely to re-offend. There are other effective ways available to protect children from sexual abuse.


How long will a person have to stay on the registry?  

The amount of time a person has to register in their own state depends on the state laws and the offense that triggered the registration. Even after a person has completed the time required on their state’s registry, the current network of laws make it very difficult to ever get off the federal sex offender registry entirely. 


As long as I don’t have to go to prison, I can live with being put on the registry--right?

Many people who have experienced both consider life on the registry to be a greater punishment than the time they spent in prison. If you have not yet pled guilty or been sentenced, be sure to consult an attorney who is intimately familiar with federal and state sex offender registry laws. Even criminal defense attorneys are not all well-versed on the consequences of registry requirements. They may not adequately weigh them when negotiating and making recommendations about plea deals.  


What if I have to register as a sex offender? Can I  have any kind of life? Can I survive the public humiliation?

YES. Expect a struggle, expect obstacles, expect many people to reduce you to a label. But there is a path forward to a meaningful life. You may have to re-train for a trade, craft, or work-from-home job. Ask your probation officer if there are any local support groups. Families of Sex Offenders is an online community (accessible after creating a free account) for those facing life on the registry and/or for their families and friends. It contains a wealth of information, acceptance, and support. 


Isn’t there also some other registry that can come up in background checks?

In some states, if the Department of Human Services does an investigation and finds that child sexual abuse happened, they may add the abuser’s name to their state’s central registry for caregiving occupations. These records are not available to the general public. But they can be accessed if the person applies for a job with a licensed child or adult care facility, school, certain professional licenses, or to be a foster or adoptive parent. DHS can list them even if no criminal case is brought, and the standard of proof is much lower. Most states have a process to be de-listed or to be allowed to be a caregiver after completing treatment. Legal appeals of this process would go through the administrative law system, not the criminal justice system. Being listed on this registry can affect a person’s life, but not in the same all-encompassing way as being listed on the public sex offender registry.

Additional Resources

Online support group for families of sex offenders or those accused of sexual crimes; must create a free account to access State by State Registry Information Sex Offender Registry FAQ’s and Sex Offender Registry Laws 

National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws: NARSOL

Oxbow Academy: Myths and Facts About Sex Offenders

Florida Action Committee: Fact sheet on the US sex offender registry 

Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking:

Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative | Initiative Home | 

Research on effective, evidence-based means for prevention of child sexual abuse Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse - Centers & Institutes - Research - Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health 

Fortune Society report on the (in)effectiveness of residency requirements in preventing repeat sex offenses: NOWHERE TO GO

Letourneau, E. J., & Caldwell, M. F. (2013). Expensive, harmful policies that don't work– or, How juvenile sexual offending is addressed in the U.S. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 8(3-4), 23-29. 

Letourneau, E. J., Harris, A. J., Shields, R. T., Walfield, S. M., Ruzicka, A. E., Buckman, C., Kahn, G. D., & Nair, R. (2018). Effects of juvenile sex offender registration on adolescent well-being: An empirical examination. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(1), 105–117. 

Franklin E. Zimring: An American Travesty: Responses to Adolescent Sexual Offending
Andrew J. Harris, Scott M. Walfield, Ryan T. Shields, Collateral Consequences of Juvenile Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Results From a Survey of Treatment Providers Sexual Abuse A Journal of Research and Treatment 28(8) March 2015

Is introducing more punitive measures the only way to deal with sex offenders?

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