Do offender registries make us safer? The Kansas Legislature is tackling that question in the current session with two bills that would reform Kansas’ increasingly complex offender registration requirements.
Reform would get Kansas close in line with other states and prioritize valuable law enforcement resources on the most serious crimes.
The state’s offender registry began with efforts to track sex offenders. Over the past two decades, the registry has expanded to a wide range of crimes, including violent crimes and drug offenses. Kansas now adds more than 1,000 offenders a year to registries after they have completed other sentencing, all of which will likely remain on the registry for at least 15 years, the Kansas minimum for most offenders.
The state has one of the most broad registries in America, leading Kansas law enforcement to track over 20,000 offenders. All offenders, regardless of crime, must check in with law enforcement four times a year and pay $20, more often if they make changes in job, create new social media accounts, get tattoos or make other changes.
Anecdotal stories of support for registries abound. Many Kansans undoubtedly like knowing if someone with a criminal history has moved into their neighborhood. However, despite decades of use and billions of dollars in law enforcement spending, there is little evidence that registries actually prevent crime.
A University of Michigan analysis of decades of research on sex offender registries, for example, found “no reliable evidence that these laws work to reduce sex offender recidivism (despite years and years of effort), and some evidence (and plenty of expert sentiment) … that these laws may increase sex offender recidivism” the author further explained, “to be deterred, potential offenders must have something to lose.”
Sex offender registries are common in America, but registries for violent and drug offenses similar to Kansas are not, particularly not with full offender information available to the general public.
The sheer quantity of offenders on the registry reduces the usefulness of the list as a public safety measure. A search of any address in an urban area will pull up dozens, if not hundreds of offenders, on the registry. Offenders on the registry have a wide range of serious and comparably minor offenses.
The two bills currently under consideration by the Kansas House of Representatives would propose a number of changes to the registration system: reduced penalties for registration violations to reduce the number of offenders sent back into the prison system, waiving the $20 registration fees for people who cannot afford them and reducing the amount of time on the registry for the more than 4,100 people who are on the registry for drug crimes.
These proposed changes are wisely cautious steps toward reforming what has become a system that takes a large amount of resources with little notable return in public safety.