Does sex offender registry really work?

Published: Wednesday, March 19 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah sex offender registry seems to be an Internet hit, though not with everyone.

In the past month the Web site, managed by the state Department of Corrections, was accessed 34,876 individual times, totaling 151,190 page views. It averages about 5,000 hits a day.

With a ZIP code or a last name, anyone can see photos and physical descriptions of those in their neighborhoods who have molested children or raped women. They can find out where they live and what kind of cars they drive. They can learn whom the perpetrators target as victims.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, sees the registry as a vital public service.

"The nice thing about the registry is it allows the public to know where dangerous people live," Ray said. "They used to fly under the cloak of darkness. They can't do that anymore."

And one of the reasons he so strongly favors the registry is due to his belief, "Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. You can't change these guys."

While Ray finds the registry a big hit, defense attorney Greg Skordas sees it as a dud.

"I think the sex offender registry is horrible. I think it is one of the worst things we've done," he said, adding his comments on the subject may ruin any chance he has of being elected to public office. (He ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2004.)

"It's the modern-day scarlet letter," he said.

Skordas said he doesn't think the registry works at all. The only good aspect he can come up with, and sarcastically at that, is, "So you know who to hide from?"

The Utah sex offender registry has been popular since it went online Dec. 7, 2000. On its first day it received some 60,000 hits.

But some, including those who keep tabs on sex offenders inside and outside prison, see it as an unfair burden on men trying to assimilate into society. It hinders their ability to find housing and jobs.

It also might give residents a false sense of security.

Adult Probation and Parole supervisor Jeremy Shaw said the sex offender registry is good for the public, but it can lead to perpetrators being isolated and alienated.

"We're not doing them any good in the long run because we're setting these guys up for failure," he said.

More than half of those listed on the sex offender registry are no longer under AP&P supervision because they have completed their probation or parole. There have been problems with accuracy in the past, but Shaw believes the accuracy has improved the past five years.

University of Utah psychology professor Don Strassberg isn't a fan of the registry.

"We don't have a murderers registry. We don't have an armed robbers registry. We don't have violent assaults registry," he said. "But, my goodness, if an 18-year-old touches a 15-year-old on the breast, he could wind up on the registry."

Strassberg said society makes life outside prison increasingly harder for sex offenders by placing more and more restrictions on them.

"I really do understand the motivation, but I believe it's an incredibly mixed bag," he said. "It's not the case that the more restrictions we place on them, the better it will protect us."

In fact, he said the opposite might be true. The unintended consequences from singling out sex offenders could put the public at greater risk.

In the recently concluded legislative session, Ray successfully sponsored Utah's version of the "Adam Walsh Law" known as SONAR (Sex Offender Notification and Registration).

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