A Deceitfully Comforting Illusion
In the US today, there are nearly 800,000 registered sex offenders. As part of the registration process, each sex offender is required to report their physical address to a local police department (the exact process varies from state to state). This is intended to empower the public to be able to identify where these offenders live and if one of them lives near you. Having this information, you are supposed to be able to better protect your loved ones and yourself.
But what if the information that the sex offender gives the police isn't accurate? Surely someone is verifying that information is accurate.
Testing the Registries
Under the federal Megan's Law, each state is obligated to maintain a publicly accessible database of registered sex offenders. Depending on the state, a search of their database will tell you where the sex offender lives and what their conviction was. Most states will report the address of the sex offender. Some states (Arkansas, DC, Minnesota, Washington) only report which city block the offender lives on. Some (Vermont and Maine) only report which city the offender lives in. But all states are supposed to be keeping track of these offenders.
As a member of the public, it would make sense that if you wanted to know the address of a sex offender, you could trust the accuracy of the address listed in the sex offender registry. After all, that's how Megan's Law is supposed to protect us.
Smarty decided to put this assumption to the test and verify each address in each state's sex offender registry.1
We decided to verify the addresses of registered sex offenders who are actually living in the community. People whose records were labeled "deceased" or "incarcerated" are clearly not in the community, so we removed all of those records from our list.
Next, we ran that reduced list through the Smarty address verification service to see which addresses were real, verifiable addresses according to the US Postal Service. The results we found are troubling.
On average, over 14% of the addresses listed for sex offenders in each state's registry are bad. Alaska has the worst score, with 39.5% of its addresses not passing USPS address verification. Florida has the best score, with only 5.5% of their addresses being bad.
Overall, of the approximately 800,000 registered sex offenders in the nation around 112,000 of them are registered under bad addresses.
WHO'S ACTUALLY BEING PROTECTED?
Our investigation provided far more questions than it did answers. Most of those questions are unsettling at best.
Why are so many states registering large numbers of sex offenders under bad addresses? Why are states not validating the address at the time that the sex offender provides it?
Validating an address is a fairly simple process using any number of address validation services. If addresses that are not real are being accepted from sex offenders, how much is the sex offender registry system actually protecting the public?
A HOUSE OF STRAW?
Many of us are familiar with the story of the three little pigs. In this classic tale, each of the three pigs construct a house to protect themselves from a danger in their world. Each builds a home out of different materials. Two of the pigs do a quick job with cheap materials and yet still believe that their home is providing them with safety and security. But this turns out only to be a comforting illusion and fails to provide the protection needed. We all know what happens to most of the pigs.
In the same way, many of us are trusting that the sex offender registries of our nation are providing us with accurate and useful information, and consequently providing us with real safety and protection. In reality, they may simply be deceiving us into false sense of security. With up to a third of convicted sex offenders committing additional sex crimes2, the protection provided by the nation's registries, seems to be little more than a house of straw.
1 We obviously could not verify the data for those states that only tell you which block the person lives on, or the city they live in.