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Why Does Florida Maintain a Sex-Offender Registry That’s Only 38.5% Accurate?

by Jo Ellen Nott 

Just when you think you had heard it all regarding Florida’s propensity to questionable money making, yet another case comes along that cloaks itself in moral respectability but has an element of graft. The public sex offense registry kept by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (“FDLE”) has eyebrow-raising data. Just 38.5 percent of the individuals listed on the sex offense registry reside in Florida. The other 61.5 percent are incarcerated, live outside the state, are deceased, are missing, or are homeless. These figures were reported by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability (“OPPAGA”) in the fall of 2021.

In 2021, the population of Florida was almost 22 million according to the census. The sex offender registry had 78,357 individuals on it, of which only 38.5 percent were living in Florida communities. Of those 38.5 percent, some might be on the list for urinating in public (indecent exposure) or for simply being a teenager who had sex with another teenager. Sex offender behavior ranges from non-harmful to society to the most egregious acts against children and vulnerable persons.

As far back as 2005, the misleading numbers of the sex offense registry have been noted. The liberal progressive weekly newspaper Orlando Weekly pointed out that the FDLE’s registry was exaggerating the threat posed by sex offenders and that Florida residents were not being given an accurate picture of who was or was not living in their neighborhoods. The weekly went on to pose the crucial question: Why does the state of Florida publish inaccurate and misleading data?

As with many cases of states profiting from well-meaning federal laws, the answer is simple. The overall figure on the sex offense registry helps determine how much funding Florida receives to comply with registry laws. More sex offenders on the registry equals more money, as the Orlando Weekly suggested in its 2005 reporting.  

Due to a complex formula of assigning extra federal money to states who are Sex Offender and Community Notification (“SORNA”) compliant and financially punishing those that are not, Florida received 14.5 million dollars in fiscal year 2020 for maintaining its robust sex offender list.

Not surprisingly, a few Florida politicians and lobbyists have profited directly from these federal monies coming into the state coffers. Lobbyist Ron Book of South Florida, and head of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, received one million dollars to help the homeless, some of whom were made homeless by laws he lobbied for regarding the number of feet away a sex offender can live from other housing. His daughter Lauren, a Florida state senator who represents a district in western Broward County, has also benefited from the federal funds coming in from compliance with SORNA. In 2017, Senator Book, as chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, voted to send $1.5 million to her non-profit victim advocacy group Lauren’s Kids.

Sex offender registries exist as a governmental response to public fear and outrage, according to Florida criminologists Meghan M. Mitchell, Kristen M. Zgoba and Alex R. Piquero. After a years-long study, these criminologists have determined that registries and notifications are not effective in deterring crime or protecting citizens. In a Tampa Bay Times guest column from December 2021: “We summarized 25 years of research and 474,640 formerly incarcerated sex offenders. We found that such policies do not reduce sexual or non-sexual recidivism. No reduction. At all.” They report that registries and notifications give the public a false sense of safety and that “tough-on-crime policies are not always smart policies.” But they sure do pay well. 

Sources: thecrimereport.org, orlandoweekly.com, tampabay.com, link.springer.com

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