Sexual abuse feeds on secrecy. The literature on the subject is overflowing with examples of enablers “keeping up appearances” and survivors being shamed for daring to report a crime or not being believed at all. No demographic predicts what kind of person will choose to commit these crimes. However, Arizona legislators have ensured that once a person is adjudicated guilty of a registerable offense, with very limited exceptions, they will be listed on the Arizona registry for life. Registrants face felony charges if they do not notify their county sheriff within 72 hours about changes in information like addresses and online identifiers. Except in the case of people assessed by law enforcement as a low risk to reoffend, the names, pictures, and addresses of all those required to register can be found online, and in many cases law enforcement will send out flyers or take other publicity measures.
Given these facts, it is no surprise that there is widespread support among voters for the public registry. Unfortunately, there is also widespread agreement among sexual abuse researchers that making the information on registries publicly available does not protect the public.
How can this be? Well, the overwhelming majority of sex crimes are committed by people who are not on a registry. And research consistently finds that people who have been convicted of sex offenses have lower overall recidivism rates than people convicted of other crimes. But the public does not buy these facts the way it eats up sensational media stories about rare repeat offenders. Facts widely known among experts are an open secret to the public.
The most plausible argument in favor of making registry information available to the public, the notion that this information allows the public to protect themselves, is not evidence-based, since over 90% of sex crime is committed by someone known to the victim. And the public has proven singularly irresponsible with registry data; even leaving aside vigilante attacks on registrants and their innocent loved ones, there is a growing body of research indicating that the stigma of being on a public registry increases the likelihood that registrants will be homeless, jobless, resentful, unstable, and deprived of moral support—hardly factors likely to reduce reoffending. Innocent family members of registered citizens suffer from shame-by-association. The publicizing of the registry, in short, has only made it harder for registrants to successfully reintegrate into society as productive, responsible citizens, and driven them underground, precisely where sexual abuse likes to hide.
Limiting access to information on registries to law enforcement and courts would remove all these flaws from the registry. Shaming people for the rest of their lives will never teach them compassion for those they have harmed. Dehumanizing people will never turn them into better people who do not commit inhumane acts.
As you can discover on our website, we at Arizonans for Rational Sex Offense Laws “envision effective, fact-based sexual offense laws and policies that promote public safety, safeguard civil liberties, honor human dignity, and offer holistic prevention, healing and restoration. Because denying any group of citizens their civil, constitutional or human rights threatens the liberties of us all.”
Paul is a published author of several books available on Amazon and the Education Coordinator for AZRSOL.