Tracking violent offenders: Registries grow, but do they work?
In the desperate hours after a University of Toledo student disappeared while bicycling this summer, her friends scanned the state’s list of sex offenders and started knocking on doors. But their search didn’t lead them down the road to an ex-con who had spent time in prison for abducting another woman — because he had never been convicted of a sex crime.
Now the family of Sierah Joughin, who investigators say was abducted and killed by a neighbor with a hidden past, wants Ohio lawmakers to follow the lead of at least seven other states that track all sorts of violent offenders.
“If you’re trying to get back in society and you’re trying to be a productive member of society, you have to own what you did,” said Joughin’s mother, Sheila Vaculik. “You’re there for a reason, and you put yourself there for a reason.”
The emotional pull of crimes that spawned sex offender registries in the 1990s has brought about these more publicly accessible lists that keep tabs on a wider range of offenders — from murderers to meth users — once they’re out of prison. A nationwide review by The Associated Press found that such registries have grown over the past decade and that more proposals are being considered.
Backers say helping people know more about their neighbors will make them safer. Yet studies have shown offender registries do little to reduce crime. Anti-domestic violence groups in states that have considered expanded registries suggest that money spent to maintain them would be better used on programs to stop violence before it happens. Keeping sex offender lists updated alone costs well over $1 million each year for many states, a price partially covered by fees offenders must pay.
Some researchers contend the lists, searchable online, can prevent offenders from finding jobs and homes, making it more likely they’ll offend again.
“When someone comes out of prison, we want them to be successful,” said Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor at the University of Washington. “We want them to be part of society. Putting people on registries like this makes it next to impossible to do.”
Vincent Brumley, who was released from an Illinois prison in 2015 after serving 27 years for his role with two others who kidnapped and killed a man, said few employers will give him a chance after he tells them of his past and they learn he’s on the state’s registry.
“That’s all they see me as,” he said. “They don’t know what I was convicted of, or if I was guilty. I did my time. Why hold me back?”
Some registries track only people convicted of murder or violent crimes against children. Montana first expanded its list to add non-sex offenders in 1995 and now includes those convicted of murder, aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, and arson.
Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Virginia require at least some violent offenders to register, while Florida has a list for “habitual offenders” convicted of felonies that aren’t sex crimes. The online registry in Kansas logs 1,600 views each day and generates a steady stream of tips, mostly involving sex and drug offenders, said John Gaunt, who oversees it for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The laws force offenders to keep their whereabouts updated for anywhere from 10 years to life, depending on the severity of the crime.
Ohio lawmakers looking into the idea have not settled on a plan and say they want to make sure law enforcement backs it.
Pennsylvania and Texas are among states that have debated establishing a domestic violence registry within the past few years.
A few registries go beyond violent crimes. Illinois, Tennessee and Minnesota have them for meth-related crimes, while Ohio has one for people convicted of drunken driving at least five times. “In this day and age, you can’t have enough information about people coming into your lives,” said New York state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, who was unsuccessful in several attempts to establish a violent offender registry. The increasing number of offender registries can be traced to a basic need to control threats around us, said Molly Wilson, a law professor at St. Louis University.
“The data doesn’t bear it out that the registries make people safer, but it does make them happier,” she said.
In a 2013 paper for the Louisiana Law Review, Wilson cited studies showing that registries seemed to have little effect on reported rapes or whether a convicted person commits crimes again.
She cited a 1995 study that found no significant difference between the recidivism rates for sex offenders who were required to register and those who weren’t. Another study looked at 10 states and found registration and notification laws seemed to have no predictable effect on the incidence of rape: six of the states saw no change in rape rates, three showed a decrease in rapes and one saw an increase.
Even Brumley, the Illinois ex-convict, said he can understand why states would want a registry for serial child molesters or other repeat violent offenders.
“I’d want to know who’s around my kids,” said Brumley, who lives in Naperville, a Chicago suburb.
Prosecutors plan to pursue the death penalty against James Worley, the ex-con who has pleaded not guilty to killing Joughin, 20, and is scheduled to go on trial next year. He and his attorneys have declined to comment.
Vaculik doubts a registry would have saved her daughter, but thinks it might protect someone else and remove some of the fear her neighbors now have in their everyday lives.
“That’s not how I want to live,” she said. “But I do want to be informed.” Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
In this July 22 photo, law enforcement officers search for missing University of Toledo student Sierah Joughin on James Worley’s property in Delta, Ohio. The family of Joughin, who investigators say was abducted and killed by a neighbor with a hidden past, wants Ohio lawmakers to follow the lead of at least seven other states that track all sorts of violent offenders.