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Report Deconstructs Urban Legend of 100,000 Missing Sex Offenders

by David M. Reutter

“Like dormitory gossip or the childhood game Whisper-Down-the-Lane,” the assertion that “over 100,000 sex offenders [are] ‘missing’ from registries across the country has galvanized the urban legend that over years of telling, took on a life of its own,” states a July 14, 2011 report published by Criminal Justice Policy Review.

The number of “missing” sex offenders has been cited as an unassailable fact without attribution. While research on the national sex offender population is hindered by the independent operation of individual state registries, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates there are around 730,000 registered sex offenders (RSOs) in the United States. The oft-cited figure of 100,000 missing sex offenders was most likely derived from a 2003 survey by an organization called Parents for Megan’s Law (PFML), which relied mainly on data from California.

“Ever since that alarming statistic was quoted in the media, it permeated the public discourse about what is ‘known’ about sex offenders,” the report states. “The fallacy, however, might be the problem of ‘missing’ sex offenders was more a reflection of failures in the operation and administration of registries than of noncompliance by individual RSOs.”

The 100,000 number has been called into question due to definitional ambiguities in what constitutes missing. That terminology “may denote lack of a permanent address (homeless or transient), a technical failure to comply with registration (in violation or noncompliant), and official designations of fugitive status (absconded, address unknown, or whereabouts unknown).”

California, Florida, Texas, Michigan and New York are home to nearly half the nation’s sex offenders. Tracking RSOs in larger states is more difficult, and California has historically been an outlier with higher reports of noncompliance than other states.

“PFML’s strategy of extrapolating a national estimate from a single state such as California is a flawed methodology; national averages cannot be inferred from single states,” according to the report. “We further suggest that a more refined definition of ‘missing’ sex offenders might produce more accurate rates of registrants whose whereabouts are truly unknown.”

The terms used to describe missing RSOs have been used interchangeably with the assumption they are deliberately eluding authorities and represent a higher risk of sexual offending. Studies of offenders who fail to register, however, indicate they do not appear to have an increased risk of committing more crimes, and that “sex offenders are among those least likely to abscond.” Some RSOs may be motivated to flee to avoid a perceived inability to comply with an overwhelming, complex and rigid set of rules specific to sex offenders.

Another fallacy associated with risk is deliberate evasion, as in some cases offenders mistakenly fail to register but still report to their parole officers and remain at their known location. Those who do not register are often assumed to be evading authorities and committing new sex offenses, but some avoid reporting in order to evade the unemployment, housing restrictions, harassment and social alienation inherent in complying with sex offender registration laws.

In determining how many sex offenders are really missing from state registries, the report relied upon two studies that used 2010 data. The first study analyzed data on 445,127 RSOs from 49 states. Of those, around 10,700 were designated as absconded, missing or unable to be located (2.5%), while another 7,000 were listed as homeless or transient (1.5%). A second study using data from 29 jurisdictions found 29,678 RSOs were reported missing or absconded, although some states, including California, may have incorrectly reported offenders as missing who were in noncompliance with the registry but whose locations were known.

Either way, the urban legend of 100,000 missing sex offenders disseminated by victims’ rights groups and dutifully repeated by the mainstream media has altered both the public conversation and decisions by lawmakers in promulgating sex offender policy.

The authors of the Criminal Justice Policy Review report expounded on their research in a separate study co-authored by University of Washington Tacoma Professor Alissa R. Ackerman and released in March 2012. That study found that sex offender registries in five states (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Texas) overestimated the number of RSO’s actually living in local communities by up to 60 percent.

“Registries are helpful if they are properly and accurately maintained and include only those individuals living in the community,” said Ackerman. “Then we are able to discern risk in our communities and the public can be better aware of offenders living near them.”

Although sex offenders may be included on registries, in many cases they are incarcerated, have died, or have been deported or moved out of state.

In Florida, for example, the state’s registry included 56,784 sex offenders when only 22,877 were actually living in Florida communities. In New York, the registry listed 32,930 sex offenders, though only 15,950 non-incarcerated offenders were living in the state. And in Texas, of the 66,121 RSO’s on the registry, just 49,786 resided in local communities. The study will be published in a future issue of the Journal of Crime and Justice.

If states can’t keep track of which registered sex offenders are actually living in their communities, how can they determine how many of them are “missing”?

Sources: “100,000 Sex Offenders Missing…or Are They? Deconstruction of an Urban Legend,” by Jill S. Levenson and Andrew J. Harris, Criminal Justice Policy Review (July 14, 2011);;

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