A new cost-benefit analysis from the R Street Institute released today suggests that the benefits associated with including juveniles on sex offender registries are currently far outweighed by the social costs of doing so.

Authored by associate fellow Richard B. Belzer, the report consists of two different cost-benefit analyses that considers the application of registration and notification laws to juvenile sex offenders: first, a retrospective evaluation that assesses the costs and benefits of these laws as they currently exist; and second, a prospective evaluation that considers several alternative reforms that merit further study.

Important to note is that the report, according to Belzer, doesn’t seek to answer the question of whether registration and notification laws “ought to apply to juvenile sex offenders,” but rather aims to objectively delineate estimates of what those laws cost and what their returns may be.

As it relates to the retrospective analysis, registration of offenders is estimated to generate about $200 million in social benefits—e.g. prevented sex offenses, enhanced law enforcement, etc.—annually, yet yield social costs to offenders, their families, and government as much as $2 billion:

“Registration is calculated to produce about $200 million in social benefits per year. Social costs are calculated to range from $200 million to $2 billion, depending on the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. Thus, net benefits are calculated to range from -$40 million to -$1 billion per year, with present-value net benefits that range from -$2 billion to -$20 billion.”

Maintaining current notification—i.e., the population that may become aware of a juvenile offender’s registration status—produces a similar result, though to a greater extent in terms of cost:

“Notification is estimated to produce no social benefits, with social costs per-year that range from $10 billion to $40 billion and present-value costs that range from -$100 billion to -$600 billion.”

As noted previously, in light of the lack of social benefits that are estimated to proceed from notification laws—and their high concomitant social costs—Belzer suggests several alternative reforms that, if implemented, would seek to bend those social costs down, including:

  • Terminating registration of offenders registered due to offenses committed as juveniles. Belzer notes that it is plausible that lower-risk juvenile offenders are processed more leniently today than in years past. Should available longitudinal data bear this out, he suggests that “a case could be made for terminating the registration of offenders who years ago were placed on the registry for offenses that today would lead to reclassification or other outcomes that don’t lead to registration.”
  • Stay of notification pending future conduct. This conduct, as Belzer states, could be positive—such as successful completion of a treatment program, etc.—or could be negative, such as failing treatment, which in case the stay could be converted to an inclusion of notification. A stay, Belzer argues, would “create incentives for offenders to behave in socially desirable ways, which the existing scheme fails to do.”

The entirety of Belzer’s report for the R Street Institute can be found here.