Do sex offender registries work?

Anthony Sowell and Phillip Garrido were registered sex offenders. It didn't stop them from doing it again

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 5, 2009 6:06PM (EST)

Is there a sex offender in your neighborhood? There’s a pretty good chance the answer is yes. According to Family Watchdog, there are four “offense against children” offenders and two rapists living within a few blocks from my home. The US Department of Justice National Sex Offender Registry lists twenty names in my zip code alone, including two women.

Now what? Does any of that information make me safer when I come home past the park late at night? Does it protect my two young daughters?

It didn’t protect Tonia Carmichael, whose body, along with those of ten other women, was found in the home Anthony Sowell earlier this week.

Sowell had been charged with a rape in 1989 and served five years for the lesser charge of attempted rape. He was, like Jaycee Dugard’s accused captor and rapist Phillip Garrido, a registered sex offender. He was, like Garrido, known to his neighbors.

Yesterday a report by California’s Office the Inspector General David R. Shaw cited over a dozen incidents of failure on the part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including claims Phillip Garrido repeatedly violated his parole. The report charges that that the Department failed to adequately classify and supervise Garrido, to obtain key information from federal parole authorities, to train parole agents to conduct parolee home visits, and, crucially, “to investigate the presence of a 12-year-old female during a home visit.” Garrido, who served eleven years in jail for the abduction and rape of Katherine Calloway Hall, was not classified as a sexually violent predator.

In addition to his supervision from the Department of Corrections, Garrido and his wife were visited by the police in 2006, after complaints from neighbors charging that the couple had people living in their yard. Officers visited the home but never entered it, and Garrido’s parole officer was never notified of the complaint. 

In a rundown neighborhood of Cleveland, meanwhile, residents are claiming police did little to respond to their complaints about Anthony Sowell. Last December, a woman filed a report accusing him of assault and attempted rape. Two weeks ago, a neighbor called the police after finding Sowell standing over a bruised and beaten woman in the bushes near his home. The witness claims police never interviewed him about what happened. The incident is all the more chilling because on September 22, another woman accused him of choking her and raping her in his home. According to the New York Times, “it took several weeks to assign an officer to the case and to obtain a search warrant.” So to review: a woman accused a convicted and registered sex offender of rape, and it took Cleveland police 45 days to arrest him, during which time they received another assault complaint about him.

All fifty states and the District of Columbia are mandated to have a publicly accessible registry of sex offenders, and there are an estimated 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. The whereabouts of approximately 100,000 of them is considered unknown. But even those familiar to the system can, like Garrido and Sowell, fly for years under the radar.

There are other flaws in the registry as well. A registered sex offender isn’t automatically a guilty sex offender. And while databases make it easy to access names and locations, they come up short on the details of the offenses themselves. Sex offender criteria can include consensual sex between teens and even public urination. Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act signed by George Bush in 2006, offenders as young as fourteen can be required to register for a minimum of fifteen years. Meanwhile, of course, there are uncounted violent sex abusers who have never been arrested or convicted of anything.

All which suggests a complicated, deeply flawed system – one that imperfectly lumps innocent and non-violent offenders in among rapists and kidnappers, a system that pits the right of privacy against the need for public safety, a system so strained that predators who are nothing short of monstrous have managed to thrive within it.

It's reassuring to believe that someone who has done very bad things doesn’t get to slip quietly into your neighborhood or mine, and that that knowledge acts as a deterrent to them. But I don’t know for sure.  Most of the recidivism studies out there are based on information from the mid-nineties, before tougher registry laws and online databases. So I can buy a sex offender app for my iPhone. I can look up my local offenders on any number of online registries. I can go all "Little Children" and, if I wish, plaster my streets with the details I find there. But a registered offender in the neighborhood isn’t automatically a threat. And when there's a real threat, as Phillip Garrido's neighbors in Antioch California and Anthony Sowell's in Cleveland Ohio have learned, knowing he’s there doesn't automatically make any difference in stopping him. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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