Sexual predators are in your neighborhoods and parks! This is the major takeaway from recent news reports about Hawaii’s sex offender registry. It makes for sensational copy, but it overlooks and ignores several serious problems with sex offender registries.

Hawaii News Now recently revealed that 28 sex offenders on Hawaii’s registry listed public parks as their residence. The headline read, “Dozens of sex predators registered as living in Oahu parks.” The reports have generated understandable public angst, especially about children’s safety.

We believe it is reasonable for our elected representatives to address this situation, as Scott Nishimoto has pledged to do. But the outrage triggered by this news should be tempered by consideration of empirical research which shows that sex offender registries are often poor public policy. They are misleading, they do little to promote public safety, and they can even increase crime. Rather than perpetuate myths about super-predator sex offenders, responsible journalists should report some well-established facts.

Perhaps the most common misconception about sex offender registries is that everyone on the list is a predator who poses a substantial risk to strangers. The very term “sexual predator” conjures up images of a stranger-pedophile kidnapping, raping, and murdering children. In reality, the vast majority of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by persons well known to the victim’s family.

Similarly, the term “sex offender” reflects an extremely wide range of offenses, from urinating in public to consensual sex between teenagers to soliciting a prostitute to the rape and murder of a child. This is hardly a coherent category, for these behaviors have very different causes, consequences, and levels of seriousness.

Also lost in this capacious label is the fact that most offenders on registries in the U.S. have been convicted of sex crimes of lesser severity. And then there is the problem of inaccuracies in the registries, which have led to miscarriages of justice and egregious acts of vigilantism.

Another myth about registries is that they are necessary for public safety, because sex offenders purportedly have a high likelihood of reoffending, and because they are believed to be highly resistant to treatment. But these premises are also untrue. Some persons who register do present a high risk of reoffending, but most sex offenders are no more likely to reoffend than other criminal offenders. In fact, some sex offenders have a lower risk of recidivism. What is more, treatment programs work for many sex offenders, including some child sexual abusers, while the registries themselves produce no reduction in recidivism.

Sex offender registries may even increase recidivism because of the “collateral consequences” of criminal punishment. Incarceration can be one result of criminal conviction, but other consequences are often more obdurate and insidious. A criminal conviction can exclude an individual from social welfare programs such as food stamps, income assistance, and public housing. A criminal record may also mean that one’s job application goes directly in the trash.

And people on sex offender registries are subject to harassment and physical assault. In a Kentucky study of registered sex offenders, 47 percent of respondents reported that they had been harassed, and 16 percent said they had suffered physical assault.

Other collateral consequences of being on a registry include loss of job, damaged relations with family and friends, and being denied housing. We bring attention to these consequences not to gin up sympathy for sex offenders but to suggest that registries make it more difficult (sometimes impossible) for some convicts to reintegrate into society, which in turn raises their risk of reoffending.

Registries are not novel. The first was created in California in 1947, but they did not become popular until the 1990s, when fear of crime was soaring despite large decreases in crime rates. Rates of forcible rape and child sexual abuse were also declining before the widespread implementation of sex offender registries, suggesting that these policies contributed little to crime control.

Some other democratic nations do use registries, but their policies are far less draconian. In Germany, for example, the information in registries is available only to the police, so there is little of the public degradation of sex offenders that is common in the U.S. Nations that use registries in a more restrained way have seen no runaway increase in sex crimes. This, too, suggests the futility and the meanness of our own war on sex offenders.

And speaking of meanness, the local alarm about unsheltered sex offenders obviously intersects with fears about the homeless in Hawaii. This comes at a time when officials are still trying to criminalize our way out of this crisis while we continue to have the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country.

In 1990, sociologist Joel Best published “Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child Victims,” a highly acclaimed book debunking the exaggerated fears of child victimization from the 1980s. The dedication to his children reads, “from their father who still worries.”

There are reasons to worry about the sexual abuse of children (and adults). But when we check our fears against the evidence we discover that sex offender registries are not a catalogue of dangerous monsters. They are a misguided attempt to combat a multi-faceted problem, and they are ineffective.

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