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Sex Offender Registration Biased Against Blacks

by Kevin Bliss

An Ohio study published in Criminal Justice Policy Review determined that the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”) system classifying the risk assessment of sex offenders is prone to racial bias.

A sample of the 673 sex offenders released from prison in Ohio between 2009 and 2011 was studied, and the researchers found that African-Americans were two-and-a-half times more likely to be inaccurately designated as high risk than their Caucasian counterparts. The assessments were state sponsored and overly weighted toward prior criminal records, argued authors Bobbie Tickner of Valdosta State University and Jessica J. Warner of Miami University Regionals.

SORNA, established by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, is an offense-based classification system assigning one of three tier categories to offenders according to “dangerousness.” It is determined by prior offenses and severity of current conviction. This is used to determine the level of supervision sex offenders are subjected to, ranging from monitoring by local law enforcement to restrictions on where they may live. Some version of this law now exists in every state.

After the study, the researchers found that about 85 percent of the individuals classified in the highest tier did not commit a new sex offense during a follow-up period of five years. In addition, 15 percent of offenders within the lowest tier were under classified.

The study’s authors said heavy reliance on criminal history was a problem with SORNA, thereby reducing its accuracy.

In addition, the study notes that research has shown black defendants are “less likely to accept a plea deal due to mistrust in the system.…”

According to the authors, “going to trial increases the chances of being found guilty of more severe charges and receiving lengthier sentences, especially for minority defendants.”

“A potential solution, suggest the authors, would be a state by state re-evaluation of the law, and a move to incorporate considerations of background information, criminogenic needs, and protective factors into risk-assessment instruments.” 


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