New study finds federal sex offender law not effective

New data driven system called for in new report

Published Nov. 28, 2012

According to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal tier-based sex offender registration and management system put in place in 2006 does not predict risk of recidivism by sex offenders and its authors point to the need for a system based on more empirical data.

Title 1 of the Adam Walsh Act (called SORNA – Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act), passed by Congress in 2006, sought to improve and standardize sex offender registration and management procedures by requiring all states to implement the same three-tier classification system according to the offense of conviction—Tier 1 being the least serious and Tier 3 being the most serious. The system assumed that the more serious the offense the higher the risk of a repeated crime by the offender.

Jill Levenson, B.A., M.S.W., Ph.D."The offense-based classification system adopted by the Adam Walsh Act was developed without empirical validation," said Jill Levenson, an associate professor of human services in Lynn University's College of Liberal Education and one of the researchers on the project. "Therefore the essential question is whether this classification system accurately represents the risk of re-offense and leads to more effective sex offender management."

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, collected data about 1,789 adult male sex offenders released from prisons in Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey and South Carolina. The sex offenders were tracked for up to 10 years. After 5 years, 5.1 percent of them had been rearrested for a new sexual crime, and after 10 years, the sexual rearrest rate was 10.2 percent.

Tier level was not significantly associated with recidivism in New Jersey, Minnesota and South Carolina and was inversely associated with recidivism in Florida—the only state in the study's sample that has been certified as substantially compliant with the federal Adam Walsh Act.

"We investigated whether SORNA tiers were correlated with risk assessments and recidivism rates. If SORNA designations correctly identify higher risk offenders, then we would expect cases with Tier 3 offenders to have higher risk scores and higher rates of recidivism," explained Levenson. "What we found, however, was that Tier 3 offenders were consistently associated with lower risk scores and lower recidivism rates."

The researchers concluded that actuarial risk assessment instruments, which are created by putting together risk factors found by research to correlate with reoffending, consistently outperformed the tier system mandated by federal law. The tiering systems already in use by the states also did a better job than SORNA tiers in predicting which sex offenders will go on to be rearrested for a new sex crime.

States that fail to comply with the law are penalized with a reduction in their federal criminal justice funding. So far, only 16 states have passed legislation complying with the federal requirements.

"The findings call into question the accuracy and utility of the federal classification system in detecting high-risk sex offenders and applying concordant risk management strategies," said Levenson. "If decision-making is to be driven by assigning offenders into defined risk classes, those categories must be determined by empirically-derived procedures so that they are more likely to correctly identify higher risk offenders. The public needs to be able to tell who poses the greatest threat to the community, and we need to make sure our limited resources are targeted toward those most likely to reoffend."

The team of researchers was led by Kristen Zgoba, director of research at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and Michael Miner, a professor in human sexuality at University of Minnesota. The team also included Ray Knight of Brandeis University, Elizabeth Letourneau of Johns Hopkins, and David Thornton, who runs the Sand Ridge secure sex offender treatment center in Wisconsin. Read the full report online. 


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Jill Levenson is an associate professor of human services at Lynn University and a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience treating sexual abuse victims, survivors, perpetrators and non-offending parents. Her academic focus is on sexual abuse and how offenders are categorized and treated.

Levenson is a nationally known expert on sexual violence and has become a respected authority on, among other things, laws aimed at protecting children while punishing, tracking and rehabilitating sex offenders. She has been quoted in national publications including the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, among others. She has published over 60 articles about sex crime policy and offender treatment.