Hidden Sex Offenders: Do sex offender registries keep the public safe?

A still from Oregon's public sex offender registry.

"I am a registered citizen who is not a sex offender today although the law brands me as that," Thomas H. Madison, a registered sex offender living in Salem, told KATU.

He said sex offender registration systems are unfair and harmful and he's actively campaigning against them.

Multiple academic studies show sex offender registries have mixed results in terms of protecting the public. And both the state of Oregon and the federal government have found that recidivism rates for sex offenders are substantially lower than rates for all offenders.

As KATU has reported, Oregon is home to the most sex offenders per capita in the country.

Meanwhile, the state only lists about 2 percent of its registered offenders on its public website.

By comparison, Idaho puts 100 percent of its registered offenders on its public website, California puts 75 percent, Nevada puts nearly 45 percent and Washington puts about 30 percent.

"If you're a law-abiding citizen you shouldn't have to carry this burden," Madison said.

He's one of the more than 28,000 registered sex offenders in Oregon who don't appear on the state's public website.

But he still has to follow several rules.

"I have to register my address once a year on my birthday, within 10 days of my birthday. If I move, I have to notify them," Madison said. "If I decide to take a class at Chemeketa College I have to go register that."

Madison was convicted of third degree sex abuse and prostitution 16 years ago.

He said like many others in his shoes, he hasn't re-offended.

In fact Oregon's Department of Corrections told KATU the general recidivism rate for all felons released from prison in the second half of 2012 is 30.7 percent. For sex offenders, it's 16 percent, meaning, as an agency spokesperson said, "sex offenders recidivate (re-offend) at about half the rate of other offenders."

"It's been humiliating to wake up in the morning to think about myself being a registered citizen, a registered sex offender," Madison said. "It's the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night."

How effective are sex offender registration systems? It's a question state lawmakers are asking.

"Does registering really change the potential for their re-offending?" State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, asked fellow lawmakers in late September.

In multiple studies researchers find the results are mixed.

A 1995 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that notifying the public about serious sex offenders had little effect on levels of recidivism.

A 2011 University of Michigan and Columbia University study found that requiring sex offenders to register with police may significantly reduce the chances they'll re-offend. But it also found making the same registry information publicly available may backfire, leading to higher overall rates of sex crime.

"I mean there's nothing left to lose. A person might consider that," Madison said.

When asked if the public should have the right to know where a dangerous, predatory offender lives, he said, "No. They don't have a right. They should not have a right because every citizen in this country who is free from prison and free from parole and probation should have the right to privacy."

This is one of several stories KATU has reported on Oregon's troubled sex offender registry system. Others are available here or by using's search feature.

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