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CBA Juvenile Sex-Offender Registration & Notification, R Street, 2015

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CONTENTS
Introduction						1	
Section I: Executive summary					2
Section II: Scope and limitations of the analyses			
2
A. Scope						2
B. Limitations						3

R STREET POLICY STUDY NO. 41
September 2015

THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF
SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO
SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION
AND NOTIFICATION
Richard B. Belzer
INTRODUCTION

O

ver the past two decades, state and federal governments have enacted a series of laws intended to
reduce the incidence of sex offenses, especially those
committed against children. 1 Though it was not the
first such legislative act, New Jersey’s Megan’s Law in 1994
is recognized widely as the key example of the genre. That
same year, Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Act (108
Stat. 2038) and a federal version of Megan’s Law (110 Stat.
1345). About 10 years later, Congress passed the Adam Walsh
Act (120 Stat. 587), also known as the AWA.
These laws required the registration of sex offenders and,
over time, expanded the systems to notify the public about
the schools they attend, the places they work and the homes
in which they live. Lawmakers believed these regulations
1. Revised Sept 22, 2015. The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of
this R Street Institute for the preparation of this report. All analyses, inferences and
conclusions belong to the author.

Section III: Retrospective benefit-cost analysis 			
3
A. Information quality					3
B. Model values						4
C. Baseline						4
D. Registration						5
1. Benefits						5
2. Costs						5
3. Net benefits						8
4. Sensitivity analysis					8
E. Public notification					10
1. Benefits						10
2. Costs						11
3. Net benefits						14
4. Sensitivity analysis					14
Section IV: Prospective benefit-cost analysis			
15
A. Important caveats regarding reform				
15
B. The principle of sunk costs				
15
C. Technological advancements reduce potential benefits of reform 	 15
D. Reform alternatives warranting consideration on
economic-efficiency grounds				16
1. Reforms consistent with the AWA				
16
2. Reforms that likely result in noncompliance with the AWA	
16
3. Unintended consequences of exemptions and stays		
18	
4. Improved risk assessment				
19
E. Distributional effects					19
1. Practical considerations for reform alternatives		
19
2. Political considerations for reform alternatives		
20
About the author						21
References						21
Figure 1: Present value benefits and costs of applying registration laws	 9
Figure 2: Present value net benefits of applying registration laws	
9
Figure 3: Exempting juvenile sex offenders from notification		
17
Figure 4: Exempting juvenile sex offenders from registration		
18
Table 1: Model values used in retrospective benefit-cost analysis	
4
Table 2: Benefits of applying registration laws to juveniles		
5
Table 3: Costs of applying registration laws to juveniles		
7
Table 4: Net benefits of applying registration laws to juveniles		
8
Table 5: Benefits of applying notification laws to juveniles		
11
Table 6: Costs of applying notification laws to juveniles		
13
Table 7: Net benefits of applying notification laws
to registered juveniles					14
Table 8: Unintended consequences of registration and
notification exemptions					19

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 1

would deter future sex crimes; make it easier to identify and
apprehend previous offenders who commit new sex crimes;
and enable the public to better protect itself from the commission of sex crimes.
This report consists of a pair of benefit-cost analyses of the
application of registration and notification laws to juvenile
sex offenders. The first is a quantitative retrospective assessment of the benefits and costs of registration and notification
laws as currently enacted and implemented. There were no
such analyses prepared before the enactment of these laws
and no credible retrospective benefit-cost analysis appears
to have been published over the intervening decades.
The second is a qualitative prospective benefit-cost analysis
of several alternative reforms that warrant consideration.
These alternatives are informed by the retrospective benefit-cost analysis. Additional analytic work would be needed
to develop plausible quantitative estimates of benefits and
costs.
Section I provides an executive summary of the retrospective
benefit-cost analysis. Section II describes what is covered
in and excluded from these analyses. It discusses important
limitations that must be taken into account when drawing
inferences. Sections III and IV are the retrospective and prospective benefit-cost analyses.

SECTION I: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Every state and territory in the United States has registration and notification laws that apply to adults convicted of,
and juveniles adjudicated delinquent for, certain sex offenses. Most jurisdictions enacted these laws on their own, but
expanded them in response to the Adam Walsh Act of 2006
(AWA).
Registration laws require offenders to appear in person to
provide identifying information (e.g., fingerprints, DNA samples) and, at least once a year, to provide an updated current
photograph. States vary with respect to the kinds of additional information they require, but the list is extensive. An inperson update also is required for any covered change in life
circumstances. These include changes in residential, school,
work or email addresses, screen names and even blog avatars.
The time allowed to complete each update is short. Failure
to register or update an existing registration is itself a felony.
Offenders may be covered by multiple states, each with its
own rules and procedures. Notification laws make some of
this information publicly available via the Internet.
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.2 This result depends on
a small number of parameters. First, based on the best available study in the literature, which applies to all sex offenders and not just juveniles, registration is assumed to have
reduced sex-offense recidivism by about one-eighth. This
translates into an annual reduction of about 800 major sex
offenses committed by juveniles.
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. About three-fourths of these costs are borne
by sex offenders’ neighbors. This occurs because living near
a registered sex offender – whether an adult or juvenile – has
a substantial “disamenity” value. Costs imposed on juvenile
offenders are calculated to range from $400 million to $2
billion per year. Costs on their families are calculated to add
another 50 percent to these amounts. Additional costs on
third parties are calculated as: $3 billion per year on employers for registry searches; $100-$500 million on employers
for adaption and mitigation of employment issues; and $200
million to $1 billion on the public for registry searches.
Because notification cannot produce net benefits, the qualitative prospective benefit-cost analysis focuses on ways to
reduce the social costs of notification. A number of reform
alternatives warrant consideration to reduce the substantial
net social costs of notification. These alternatives involve
exempting certain fractions of registrants listed due to
offenses committed as juveniles. High-quality risk assessment is necessary to minimize false positives.

SECTION II: SCOPE AND LIMITATIONS OF THE
ANALYSES
A. Scope
This paper relies exclusively on the existing published literature determined to be relevant for benefit or cost assessment.
No new data were collected and no new analyses of original
data were conducted. The retrospective analysis is quantitative but dependent on the existence, quality and practical utility of existing published analysis prepared by others.
Almost all of these studies address sex offenders generally,
not juvenile offenders, and results that apply to all offenders
are interpolated to apply to the juvenile subset.
Other provisions of laws containing registration and notification requirements are excluded, as are certain ancillary
2. In these calculations, and others that follow, calculations are reported with one significant figure. Readers are strongly advised not to interpret greater precision.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 2

regulatory provisions, such as residency restrictions that
may have been promulgated later. In jurisdictions where
residency restrictions were imposed at the same time as
registration and notification, some outcomes may be jointly
produced, such that identifying the provision responsible for
a particular observed effect would be difficult at best, and
may be impossible.
Similarly excluded from the analysis are the benefits and
costs of separate provisions that impose penalties for failure to register and failure to maintain the accuracy of one’s
registration. This exclusion is primarily due to budget constraints resulting from data gaps and methodological challenges, not because failure-to-register isn’t important. The
benefits of penalizing noncompliance are complex. This is
particularly true given the known limitations in data quality, even when compliance isn’t an issue. Costs are zero for
those who comply, low for those who aren’t prosecuted for
failure-to-register and extremely high otherwise.
Throughout this paper, no position is taken with respect to
the normative question of whether registration and/or notification laws ought to apply to juvenile sex offenders. Rather,
the sole purpose of this analysis is to develop estimates of
benefits and costs that are as objective as possible, recognizing the unavoidable need to use best professional judgment
when evaluating multiple strands of evidence of highly variable quality.

is an especially troubling and common information-quality
defect, for it incorrectly leads readers to infer much more
confidence than is justified by the quality of underlying data.
To avoid this problem, benefit and cost estimates reported
here are limited to a single significant digit. The purpose of
this limitation is to deter readers from inferring excess precision and to provide a constant reminder that precision is limited. In addition, readers should not interpret the single significant digit according to usual conventions. Thus, a figure
of “about $100 million” should not be interpreted as somewhere between $99.5 and $100.4 million. Rather, it reflects
an order of magnitude. Where assumptions uninformed by
empirical evidence were made, values were chosen in orders
of magnitude or their approximate square roots. Thus, an
assumed unit value of $1,000 means that $300 was considered likely to be too low and $3,000 too high.
There are several benefit and cost categories for which no
credible estimates could be derived from the literature. In
these cases, the quantitative analysis reports missing values, with a note indicating whether this missing data poses
a major gap (i.e., a material impact on total benefits or costs)
or minor gap (i.e., no such impact). The value zero is reserved
for categories of effects where zero is the best professional judgment of the magnitude based on economic theory,
empirical evidence or both.

A notable feature of this paper is it takes information quality seriously, especially statistical information and analyses. Greater weight is given to peer-reviewed over non-peer
reviewed studies. However, peer review is not presumed to
provide evidence of objectivity or impart a talismanic belief
in fundamental correctness. Studies performed by advocacy organizations are required to meet a higher information-quality standard to compensate for bias that advocacy
tends to impart.3 Studies that rely on statistical sampling
are expected to adhere to generally accepted principles for
statistical practice.4 Where this is not feasible, scholars are
nevertheless expected to refrain from drawing inferences
that cannot be supported by the quality of their data and the
statistical methods used. In cases where that professional
rule is not followed, confidence in the quality of the work is
necessarily diminished.

Due to resource constraints, no analyses of variability or
uncertainty have been conducted. This is a key limitation
because substantial variability and uncertainty exist, most
notably with respect to the proportion of registrants listed
due to offenses committed as juveniles. Where appropriate,
sensitivity analyses have been conducted to ascertain the
robustness of the results.

B. Limitations

A. Information quality

The quantitative benefit-cost analysis in Section III depends
on the quality of the data and analyses that have been published. Unfortunately, many of the available studies do not
devote sufficient attention to data quality. Excess precision

Criminal-justice research relies heavily on a few federal databases. Most notable are the Crimes in the United States series,
based on Uniform Crime Reports, and the National IncidentBased Reporting System, both maintained by the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. These reports assemble information
in formats prescribed by the FBI and using FBI definitions,
but provided voluntarily by local law-­enforcement agencies

3. Office of Management and Budget (2002), Office of Management and Budget
(2005).
4. Office of Management and Budget (2006).

SECTION III: RETROSPECTIVE BENEFIT-COST
ANALYSIS
This section summarizes the results of retrospective benefit-cost analysis. Subsection A addresses a few important
information-quality matters. Subsection B introduces a list
of model parameters. Subsections D and E cover the benefits
and costs of registration and notification, respectively.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 3

that may not follow the FBI’s many directives. Although the
FBI is legally required to ensure the assembled data satisfy
federal information quality standards,5 there is no public evidence that it has ever attempted to do so. Instead, the FBI
publishes disclaimers that simultaneously deny the existence of applicable information-quality standards and shift
to others the responsibility for meeting them. For this reason, researchers should be exceedingly wary about relying
on these databases. Unfortunately, such circumspection is
rarely observed in the scholarly literature.

TABLE 1: MODEL VALUES USED IN RETROSPECTIVE BENEFITCOST ANALYSIS
MODEL VARIABLE
Arrest_Rate

50 percent

Conviction_Rate

90 percent

Discount_Rate_Adult

Many studies in the literature are based on small, so-called
“convenience” samples, and this is especially so for studies of
juvenile offenders. Only rarely do these samples have known
statistical properties that allow results to be generalized to
any population. These studies have been used to inform the
benefit-cost analyses herein, but not to guide assumptions or
select quantitative values.

7 percent

Offender_Wages_Lost_Pct

50 percent

Offender_Wages_Lost_Pct_Max

100 percent

Offender_Wages_Lost_PV

The U.S. Department of Justice maintains a database on
crime victimization collected via the National Crime Victimization Survey. This data series is useful insofar as it
provides a “victims’ eye” perspective on the magnitude and
characteristics of sex offenses. However, the survey allows
respondents to decide which events qualify as instances of
sex offenses. Predictably, the NCVS reports a much larger
number of incidents than are contained in the FBI’s databases. Leaving aside the important-but-charged question of
which estimate is closer to the truth, registration and notification laws cannot have any material deterrent effect on
the incidence of sex offenses that are not reported. Indeed,
there are reasons to believe these laws actually deter reporting, especially by family members who rationally want to
avoid the adverse effects that will be imposed on them if the
offender is legally sanctioned.6

VALUE

Offender_Wages_Lost_Years

$178,129
60

Offender_Wages_LT_HSEd_Annual

25,376

Offender_Wages_LT_HSEd_Weekly

488

Offenders_2010

485,000

Offenders_First_Time_Pct

95 percent

Offenders_Pct_Increase_Annual

6.2 percent

Offenders_2015
Offenders_J_Family_Size
Offenders_J_Family_Burden
Offenders_J_Family_IncomeLoss_Pct

654,264
2
$3,000
50 percent

Offenders_Juvenile_Pct_Low

5 percent

Offenders_Juvenile_Pct_Mid

17 percent

Offenders_Juvenile_Pct_Hi

33 percent

Offense_Avoided_Value_1987

$100,000

Offense_Avoided_Value_2015

$209,000

Offenses_Annual
Offenses_Juvenile_Pct

60,000
33 percent

Paperwork_Burden_Notification

$0

Paperwork_Burden_Registration

$1,000

B. Model values

Reduction_Incidence_Notification

0 percent

The retrospective benefit-cost analysis model includes a
number of assumptions and derived constants. They are
listed in Table 1 and discussed as appropriate below.

Reduction_Incidence_Registration

12.5 percent

C. Baseline
The magnitude of the problem posed by juvenile sex offending is subject to considerable uncertainty. To ensure internal
consistency, the baseline level of social cost is assumed to
equal the number of violent sex offenses committed per year
(70,000) multiplied by the fraction attributable to juveniles
(20 percent) and the estimated value of avoiding a random
5. Office of Management and Budget (2002).
6. Costs imposed, both directly and indirectly, on offenders’ families provide a rational
basis for underreporting of offenses committed against family members. The extent
to which registration (and especially notification) laws deter reporting because of
these costs is an excellent subject for future research.

Registry_Hours_per_Search

0.05

Registry_Operations_Offender

$300

Registry_Operations_System

196,279,159

Registry_Searches_Annual

2,355,349,909

Registry_Searches_Month

280,000

Registry_Searches_Pct_Business

30 percent

Registry_Searches_Pct_Public

70 percent

Registry_Searches_Pct_SocialMedia

1 percent

Registry_Value_per_SearchHour_Business

$100

Registry_Value_per_SearchHour_Public

$30

Res_Real_Estate_Loss_per_Offender_2006

$160,000

Res_Real_Estate_Loss_per_Offender_2015

$160,000

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 4

incident ($100,000 in 1987; $209,000 in 2015). This yields
aggregate social costs of $20 billion per year for violent sex
offenses and $3 billion per year for violent sex offenses committed by juveniles.

community expenditures on inefficient precaution. Registries presumably aid law enforcement by enabling them to
focus investigative resources. However, whether this is effective depends on the extent to which registered offenders are
objectively more likely to be suspects.

D. Registration

Registries also could lead to a greater sense of safety independent of any actual reduction in incidence. But reduced
risk perception is not a benefit, however; only actual risk
reduction is counted in benefit-cost analysis. Nonetheless,
if risk perception exceeds actual risk, and the creation of a
registry reduces the gap between perceived and actual risk,
communities and households may reduce their expenditures
on cost-ineffective precaution. Reductions in these expenditures count as benefits.

The registration process collects extensive information
about adults convicted of sex offenses and juveniles adjudicated as delinquent for sex offenses. This information
is intended to be made available only to law enforcement.
Calculations of benefits and costs assume that information
intended to remain confidential to law enforcement stays
confidential.

1. Benefits
Table 2 lists three categories of benefits from registration; the
only one quantified and monetized is the value of reduced
incidence. While several studies have shown no effect, the
study with the best data and most robust design estimated
the incidence of covered sex offenses was reduced by oneeighth.7 Offenses committed by juveniles and adults are
assumed to be reduced proportionally. Of the approximately 70,000 annual forcible sex offenses that are reported,8 20
percent are assumed to have been committed by juveniles.
The arrest rate for juvenile sex offenses is assumed to be 50
percent, and 90 percent of those arrested are assumed to be
convicted and thus subject to registration.9 This means about
800 juvenile-committed sex offenses per year are calculated
to be prevented by registration.10
The value of preventing a statistically random violent sex
offense is obtained from a National Research Council
report.11 This estimate is conceptually comprehensive but
was acknowledged at the outset to have data gaps. For this
analysis, the authors’ $65,000 per-offense estimate was
rounded up to $100,000 in recognition of these data gaps,
and inflated from 1987 to 2015 dollars at the Consumer Price
Index ($100,000 × 2.09 = $209,000). This yields an annual
benefit estimate of about $200 million.
Registration alone could produce two other potentially significant benefits: enhanced law enforcement and reduced
7. Prescott and Rockoff (2011).
8. Federal Bureau of Investigation (2015), Victims by Age Category.
9. Ackerman, Harris, Levenson and Zgoba (2011) report that less than 0.5 percent of
registered sex offenders are under 18 years of age, or £ 2,248 of their 49-state sample. Few of these registrants would be recidivists, though it cannot be determined
how many were listed in the 12 months preceding the data collection for the study.
10. Additional research is needed to ascertain how much uncertainty surrounds
this estimate. The chief uncertainty is not the various multipliers in the calculation, but rather the extent to which prospective juvenile offenders are aware of the
consequences of registration and capable of incorporating that knowledge into their
decision-making.
11. Cohen, Rust, Steen and Tidd (2004), Tables 24 and 25. Because the identity of
a prospective victim is unknown, it is appropriate to assume a statistically random
event.

No studies have been located that provide reliable quantitative estimates that could be used to estimate these two benefits; indeed, no evidence has been found in the literature
even acknowledging the possibility of reduced inefficient
expenditures on precaution. Therefore, no values for these
potential benefits are included in the analysis.
TABLE 2: BENEFITS OF APPLYING REGISTRATION
LAWS TO JUVENILES
Calculated
quantity

Unit
value
($000)

Annual
($M)

Present
value
($M)

 Registered juveniles (5%)

750

209

200

2,000

 Registered juveniles (17%)

750

209

200

2,000

 Registered juveniles (33%)

750

209

200

2,000

Enhanced law enforcement

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

Benefit Type
 Prevented sex offenses a 

Reduced expenditures on
­i nefficient precaution c

b

a. One-eighth reduction in incidence from Prescott & Rockoff (2011) Unit value
updated from the comprehensive estimate in Cohen, et al (1994).
b. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature, but highly unlikely to be large.
c. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Existence of registries may diminish
excess risk perception, resulting in reduced expenditures on cost-ineffective precaution

2. Costs
Table 3 lists costs organized by the party expected to bear
them. Cost-bearers obviously include convicted offenders
(who must register) and government agencies (which must
process their registrations). Two groups of third parties also
should be expected to bear significant costs: offenders’ families and non-recidivist registrants subjected to heightened
scrutiny by law enforcement. Both are spillover effects. Families experience paperwork burdens and lost work dealing
with the ramifications of their children’s actions. When law
enforcement uses registries to focus investigative resources
in response to new sex crimes, in almost all cases, registrants
subjected to heightened scrutiny are innocent.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 5

Costs to offenders: The best available evidence is that there
were about 485,000 publicly registered sex offenders in
2010.12 Other figures that are considerably higher are commonly cited, but the methods used to derive them are inadequately described.13 Some states also maintain nonpublic
registries for minor offenses and for juveniles,14 but transparent and reproducible estimates of the number of nonpublic
registrants have not been found. Moreover, it is not known to
what extent offenders originally listed on nonpublic registries
migrate to public registries, or whether migration is automatic or the result of a new offense committed as an adult.
To obtain an estimate of the number of public registrants for
2015, the approximate number of annual serious sex offenses (70,000) was multiplied by the estimated proportion of
first-time offenders (95 percent),15 the assumed arrest rate
(50 percent) and the assumed conviction rate (90 percent).
The 2010 rate was then compounded for five years at the
resulting annual growth rate (3.5 percent) to obtain about
650,000 publicly registered sex offenders for 2015.16
The calculated number of new juveniles annually subject to
registration was obtained by multiplying the 2015 total by the
proportion of registered offenders who are believed to have
registered because of a sex offense committed as a juvenile.
The best available evidence of the proportion of public registrants who are juveniles (< 0.5 percent) comes from Ackerman et al. (2011). Stipulating that this figure is correct, it
still cannot be discerned what proportion of adult registrants
were required to register solely due to offenses committed as
juveniles. If it assumed that juveniles are added to the registry at the rate of 0.5 percent per year, for average terms of
10, 15, 25 and 50 years (i.e., life) the steady-state percentage
of registrants listed solely because of juvenile sex offenses
would be 5 percent, 7.5 percent, 10 percent, 12.5 percent and
25 percent. In this analysis, three alternative proportions are
modeled: 5 percent, 17 percent and 33 percent.
Cost estimates are highly sensitive to this parameter. Both
the magnitude and the sign of net benefits depend on its true
(but unknown) value. Keeping all other parameters constant,
the net benefits of registering juveniles are positive only if the
proportion of registrants listed because of juvenile offenses
is less than about 5 percent. Based on the simple steady-state
calculation above, this appears very unlikely.
12. Ackerman, Harris, Levenson and Zgoba (2011). This includes about 37,000 offenders in Michigan that the authors dropped from their analyses due to missing data.
13. See, e.g., National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2012), National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2015). The authors describe their data as
“obtained via a survey of the individual sex offender registries.”
14. Human Rights Watch (2013), pp. 43-46.
15. Sandler, Freeman and Socia (2008).
16. The prevailing figure widely cited in public discourse comes from the National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which recently reported a 2015 figure
of 843,260, which is about 30 percent higher. See National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children (2015). As previously noted, this figure is neither transparent nor
capable of being reproduced by a qualified independent third party.

It is assumed that each juvenile offender bears about $1,000
in paperwork burden per year to comply with his registration responsibilities.17 These burdens have not been systematically estimated. They include assembling the required
records; appearing in person annually (or more often) to provide them; and taking a day off from school or work to do so.
Every change in status also must be reported. At $1,000 per
offender, the aggregate annual cost of paperwork burden on
juvenile offenders ranges from $30 million to $200 million.
If the true cost of burden is, say, $3,000 per offender, then
the range of aggregate cost trebles to $90 million to $600
million per year.
Costs to offenders’ families: Families of juvenile offenders
likely bear similar paperwork burdens. It is assumed, based
solely on professional judgment, that this burden is three
times greater because of the opportunity cost of parents’
lost work time. The aggregate annual cost of registration on
families is thus calculated to range from $200 million to $1
billion per year.
Costs to governments: Government agencies that manage
the registries are required to meet in-person with offenders
who seek to register or update a registration. This requires
staff time, even if no dedicated staff is hired for the purpose.
It is assumed that government agencies expend resources
valued at $300 per offender per year. Aggregate annual costs
to governments for managing juvenile offenders thus range
from $10 million to $100 million per year. Government costs
are a small share of the burden of registration, but tend to
capture almost all the attention.
Unquantified costs: Some states have additional regulatory
requirements. These may include, for example, residency
restrictions, GPS monitoring or mandatory foster care of
juveniles adjudicated delinquent for sex offenses committed against family members. These other costs belong in the
benefit-cost analysis only if they are nondiscretionary and
automatically triggered by registration. No values are included here because no estimates of their magnitude suitable for
the calculation of social cost have been found.
The stated purpose of registration is to enable law enforcement to narrow its search for suspects when new sex crimes
occur. The best available evidence indicates that registered
offenders, even though they are more likely to commit new
sex crimes than the population at large, nevertheless are
responsible for a very small fraction of the crimes that are
17. The definition of burden used here comes from the Paperwork Reduction Act,
44 USC § 3502(2): “[T]he term ‘burden’ means time, effort, or financial resources
expended by persons to generate, maintain, or provide information to or for a Federal
agency, including the resources expended for (A) reviewing instructions; (B) acquiring, installing, and utilizing technology and systems; (C) adjusting the existing ways
to comply with any previously applicable instructions and requirements; (D) searching data sources; (E) completing and reviewing the collection of information; and (F)
transmitting, or otherwise disclosing the information.”

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 6

TABLE 3: COSTS OF APPLYING REGISTRATION LAWS
TO JUVENILES
COST TYPE

CALCULATED QUANTITY

UNIT VALUE ($)

ANNUAL($M)

PRESENT VALUE ($M)

 On juvenile offenders (paperwork) a
 Registered juveniles (5%)

32,713

1,000

30

400

 Registered juveniles (17%)

109,044

1,000

100

1,000

 Registered juveniles (33%)

196,279

1,000

200

3,000

On juvenile offenders
(family alienation) b

0

0

0

0

On juvenile offenders
(GPS monitoring) c

0

0

0

65,426

3,000

200

 Registered juveniles (17%)

218,088

3,000

700

9,000

 Registered juveniles (33%)

392,558

3,000

1,000

20,000

 Registered juveniles (5%)

32,713

300

10

100

 Registered juveniles (17%)

108,044

300

30

400

 Registered juveniles (33%)

196,279

300

100

1,000

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

 Registered juveniles (5%)

 

 

200

4,000

 Registered juveniles (17%)

 

 

800

10,000

 Registered juveniles (33%)

 

 

2,000

20,000

 On juvenile offenders’ families d
 Registered juveniles (5%)

2,000

 On government (registry maintenance) e 

On government (foster care) f
On government (GPS monitoring)

g

On innocent registrants h
COSTS OF REGISTRATION

All values reported with one significant figure.

a. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Includes cost for registering and maintaining registration. Three alternative fractions of the proportion of registrants listed for juvenile offenses.
b. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. In some states, registration may trigger exclusion from living at home if victim is family member.
Should be: “Not applicable if residential exclusion is a sanction independent of registration. Social cost is value of family alienation.
c. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. In some states, registration may trigger requirement for GPS monitoring. Direct cost to offenders
is minor; indirect costs may be significant.
d. Major gap. No credible estimates in literature. Three alternative fractions of percent registrants listed for juvenile offenses. Family effects resulting from relational association assumed to be 3x paperwork burdens on offenders.
e. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Cost is in-person paperwork processing. Three alternative fractions of % registrants listed for
juvenile offenses.
f. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. In some states, registration may trigger exclusion from living at home if victim is family member.
Not applicable if residential exclusion is a sanction independent of registration. Social costs are expenditures on administration and social work.
g. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. In some states, registration may trigger exclusion from living at home if victim is family member.
Not applicable if residential exclusion is a sanction independent of registration. Social costs are expenditures on monitoring.
h. Major gap. No credible estimates in literature. Registrants not responsible for subsequent offenses are subject to heightened scrutiny. Scrutiny
may lead to inadvertent or improper disclosure of registration status, with cost similar to those listed under Notification. Some innocent registrants
may be falsely charged, and a few may be falsely convicted.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 7

committed, even in the absence of registries.18 This means
that when law enforcement agencies investigate registered
offenders after a new sex offense is reported, contrary to
television mythology, the vast majority of registrants they
investigate (and quite likely, all of them) are innocent of the
crime under investigation.
Nonetheless, heightened scrutiny is a real cost to innocent
parties and must be counted. These costs obviously include
innocent registrants’ time and attention, as well as the opportunity cost of additional precautions they may take to reduce
the likelihood of bearing the costs of heightened scrutiny.
Some innocent registrants will have their registration status inadvertently or improperly disclosed to third parties,
in which case they will suffer additional costs concomitant
with public notification.
No estimates of these costs, or the precursor quantities needed to approximate them, have been located. This is considered a major gap in cost assessment and its magnitude is likely to be large in jurisdictions that aggressively use registries
for law enforcement.

3. Net benefits
Table 4 presents the calculated net benefits of applying sexoffender registratio n laws to juveniles. Costs and benefits
appear about equal if the proportion of registrants listed due
to offenses committed as juveniles is 5 percent. For the higher modeled proportions (17 percent and 33 percent), registration has negative net benefits of $800 million and $1 billion
per year, respectively.
TABLE 4: NET BENEFITS OF APPLYING REGISTRATION
LAWS TO JUVENILES
Net benefits
Registered juveniles (5%) a
Registered juveniles (17%)

b

Registered juveniles (33%) c

Annual ($M)

Present value ($M)

0

-2,000

-600

-9,000

-2,000

-20,000

All values reported with one significant figure.
a. 5 percent of registrants listed for juvenile offenses.
b. 17 percent of registrants listed for juvenile offenses
c. 33 percent of registrants listed for juvenile offenses

Figure 1 graphically illustrates benefits and costs of registration in present-value terms using a 7 percent discount rate
and an infinite time horizon. Figure 2 displays net benefits
of registration the same way.

18. Sandler, Freeman and Socia (2008).

4. Sensitivity analysis
While there is uncertainty about the unit value of preventing a forcible sex offense, the effect of this uncertainty on net
benefits is likely to be relatively small compared to uncertainties in the calculation of social costs.
On the cost side, the most important uncertain parameters
are the extent to which registration reduces incidence and
the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. The analysis models a range of proportions
from 5 percent to 33 percent. The lower value appears to be
a plausible lower bound, but locating an equally plausible
upper bound is not simple. Still, it is easy to modify the cost
model to incorporate a higher percentage if there is better
evidence supporting its plausibility..
Reduction in incidence: Assuming for the sake of argument
that costs have been accurately estimated, net benefits are
sensitive to the degree to which registration reduces incidence. The estimate obtained by Prescott and Rockoff (2011)
is used here because it is the only analysis that uses higherquality National Incident-Based Reporting System data; the
capacity to discern effects across offender/victim relationships; and has sufficient statistical power to detect relatively
small changes. Obviously, other values are plausible, but in
the absence of any evidence supporting specific alternatives,
no other estimates are modeled.
The proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles: Assuming for the sake of argument
that benefits have been accurately estimated, registration is
unlikely to produce positive net benefits unless the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles is less than 5 percent. Coincidentally, this is a plausible
lower bound for this proportion. For the lower bound to
be true, there must be no significant migration of juvenile
offenders from non-public to public registries, and juveniles
must not be listed for more than an average of 10 years. If the
average term is longer, or juvenile offenders migrate in significant numbers from non-public to public registries, then
5 percent is not a valid lower bound for the true proportion
and net benefits are increasingly likely to be negative.
A useful sensitivity benchmark is the incidence reduction
that results in zero net benefits at the middle (17 percent)
and higher (33 percent) fractions of registrants assumed to
be listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. At both of
these proportions, net benefits are substantially negative.
If the middle proportion is assumed to be true, registration
would have to reduce incidence by at least 60 percent to
yield positive net benefits. For the high proportion, registration would have to reduce incidence by about 80 percent.
Incidence reductions of these magnitudes have not been
observed anywhere, or even suggested by committed registration advocates.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 8

FIGURE 1: PRESENT VALUE BENEFITS AND COSTS OF APPLYING REGISTRATION LAWS TO JUVENILES
COSTS OF REGISTRATION

Present Value ($M)

BENEFITS OF REGISTRATION

Proportion of registrants listed because of an offense committed as a juvenile
All values reported with one significant figure. Assumed proportion of public registrants comprised of persons listed
due to offenses committed as juveniles: Low = 5 percent, Mid = 17 percent, High = 33 percent.

FIGURE 2: PRESENT VALUE NET BENEFITS OF APPLYING REGISTRATION LAWS TO JUVENILES
NET
NET	
  BENEFITS
BENEFITS	
  OF
OF	
  REGISTRATION
REGISTRATION	
  

Present Value ($M)

Present	
  Value	
  ($M)	
  

0	
  
-­‐5,000	
  
-­‐10,000	
  

-­‐$2,000	
  	
  

-­‐$10,000	
  	
  

-­‐15,000	
  
-­‐20,000	
  
-­‐25,000	
  

-­‐$20,000	
  	
  
5%	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  17%	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  	
  33%	
  
	
  
Proportion of registrantsPropor7on	
  
listed because
an offenselisted	
  
committed as a juvenile
of	
  rof
egistrants	
  
because	
  of	
  an	
  offense	
  commi@ed	
  as	
  a	
  juvenile	
  

All values reported with one significant figure. Assumed proportion of public registrants comprised of persons listed
due to offenses committed as juveniles: Low = 5 percent, Mid = 17 percent, High = 33 percent.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 9

Costs to offenders: Net benefits also are sensitive to the
magnitude of burden borne by offenders and their families.
In this analysis it is assumed that family burdens are six times
greater than burdens on offenders, reflecting broad familial
spillover effects on family members and the higher marginal-value product of parents’ time. These burdens would be
lower if offenders and their families are estranged for reasons other than registration. However, they would be higher
if offenders’ parents are highly engaged with their children;
have higher educational attainment; and the higher income
that tends to accompany higher educational attainment.
Value of preventing a statistically random violent sex
offense: Net benefits also are sensitive to the assumed value
of preventing a statistically random violent sex offense. The
figure used here—$209,000— is adapted from the most comprehensive estimate in the literature. The estimate acknowledges gaps where important costs could not be estimated.
Ideally, this unit value would be the sum of different sex
offenses weighted by their unit of prevention value. The
available literature does not support developing an estimate
that captures this kind of detail.
Some insight can be gleaned by calculating net benefits for a
range of unit values. These calculations are simple proportions of the reported benefit estimate. For example, if the true
unit value is half as large, the benefits of registration decline
by half and net benefits become highly negative under all
models. If the true value is double the amount used here,
benefits would be twice as large and net benefits would be
positive if the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses
committed as juveniles is 5 percent.

E. Public notification
Notification expands without limit the population that may
become aware of a juvenile offender’s registration status.
Substantial costs are likely to be associated with the dissemination of this information. Ironically, costs imposed on the
intended beneficiaries are even greater than costs imposed
on the offenders.
Meanwhile, benefits are difficult to find, even in theory.

1. Benefits
The primary benefit that legislators appeared to expect
when enacting sex-offender registration laws was deterrence of future sex offenses. The mechanism by which this
was expected occur is simple to explain, but complex to realize. For several reasons, this mechanism is highly unlikely
to work.
Using the public registry is difficult. Individuals must consult
it frequently and manually. Data change as new sex offenders

are listed and existing offenders change schools, jobs and residences. Searches must be performed manually, as the public Web interface is protected from automated algorithms to
search for and distribute results. Registries are searchable
by name, ZIP code and address radius; the latter two are the
more common search strategies for community members.
ZIP code boundaries are large and one mile is the smallest
search radius permitted. Searches are cumbersome, yield
data that are difficult to use and include numerous errors
that misinform the public. Some search results are inaccurate or misleading. Some addresses are plotted incorrectly.
Registrants who are known to be homeless, or who have no
known fixed address, are given random but specific map
locations.19
Considering these design limitations, the utility of registry
information is suspect, even before a public user begins to
consider what additional precautions might be warranted. This leads to an even greater barrier to effectiveness. A
review of the literature does not reveal any plausible riskreducing actions or strategies a member of the public could
take to reduce risk based on information listed in the public
registry.
Public notification may have benefits in specific cases where
community knowledge of registered offenders expedites
apprehension of a recidivist. There is evidence in the literature that this may occur, but it is less susceptible to quantification and monetization than the burdens regularly imposed
by registration on innocent registrants, who are subject to
heightened law-enforcement scrutiny. Public notification
also may increase the perception of safety if the actual number of (and proximity to) registered sex offenders is materially below public perceptions. This could lead the public to
reduce expenditures on cost-ineffective precautionary measures and these cost savings would be cognizable as benefits. (Of course, notification could have the opposite effect
on public risk perception, in which case its effects would be
realized as costs.)
This suggests that public benefits from notification may
be limited to existence value and voyeur value. Existence
value is the intrinsic value of a good, service or amenity
19. The author’s state registry allows searches by ZIP Code, address, name, county
and city. For the author’s residential ZIP Code, search yielded 62 non-incarcerated
offenders, reported on a map or list. The map does not include ZIP Code boundaries, so users typically would be unable to discern their distance from an adjacent ZIP
Code. A search including adjacent (but unspecified) ZIP Codes yields 134 offenders.
City searches capture post office addresses, not jurisdictional boundaries. A search
for “Alexandria, Va.” yields 290 offenders, a majority of whom appear to live or work
in Fairfax County, Va., rather than in the City of Alexandria.
Lists are alphabetical by last name and cannot be sorted by any useful field (e.g.,
street address). Offense type is not a disclosed field.
Map view purportedly allows the user to distinguish between residential and employment listings, but most employment-based listings erroneously show residential
addresses. Radius searches produce only maps. A one-mile radius search produces
nine employment and 31 home locations; numbers must be manually counted, and
some work or home icons include multiple offenders.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 10

i­ ndependent of any willingness to pay for consumption,
use or other enjoyment. Voyeur value is the willingness to
pay to observe or vicariously experience the macabre. Existence value is generally accepted conceptually in economics, though often controversial in practice, especially in the
absence of more conventional benefits. Voyeur value is often
observed in practice (e.g., public interest in graphic images
of catastrophic events, rubbernecking and so-called “reality” television). But including it here as a benefit raises ethical issues, because the purported benefit is always at others’
expense and, perversely, would increase with the size of a
registry. In any case, there are no credible estimates of the
magnitudes of these purported benefits.
Table 5 lists each of the categories of potential benefits of
applying notification laws to juvenile sex offenders. There is
no credible evidence that notification leads to a reduction in
incidence, so the calculated value of sex offenses prevented is
zero. This does not mean that no such benefits exist. Rather,
it means that, if notification does reduce incidence, the effect
is too small to detect using sophisticated statistical methods.
Support for the absence of incidence reduction is provided
by the weakness of the causal chain through which such benefits would be realized, as noted above. None of the other
categories of potential benefits is likely to be significant even
if it could be estimated.
TABLE 5: BENEFITS OF APPLYING SEX-OFFENDER-NOTIFICATION
LAWS TO JUVENILES
Calculated
quantity

Unit
value

Annual
($M)

Present
value ($M)

Prevented sex
offenses a

0

$209,000

0

0

Existence value/
voyeurism? b

0

0

0

0

To law
enforcement c

0

0

0

0

Neighborhood
indirect cost
savings d

0

0

0

0

BENEFITS

0

0

0

0

Benefit type

a. No evidence of deterrent effect in literature. Causal pathway is complex, requiring,
inter alia, public use of registries, understanding of data and actions based on data
that reduce incidence.
b. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Public may be willing to pay to know
registries exist and can be accessed, even if they do not use them. Public use may be
dominated by voyeurism, which for public policy reasons might be excludable from
the domain of public benefits.
c. Minor gap. There is credible evidence in literature that notification reduces time to
arrest. Effects are not quantified in a way amendable to valuation.
d. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Benefits are speculative, requiring
pre-notification risk expectations to be substantially above actual risk. (New indirect
costs where notification increases risk perception must be subtracted.)

2. Costs
Table 6 summarizes the costs of applying notification laws
to juvenile sex offenders. These costs are numerous in type
and substantial in magnitude.
Costs to registered sex offenders and their families: The
most obvious cost of notification is a reduction in employment opportunity. Many employers will decline to hire
offenders, either for risk-management purposes or to comply
with labor-market regulations. They may terminate current
employees if it can be done without triggering c­ riminal or
civil liability. Reliable estimates of the magnitude of these
costs are elusive, in large part because employers are reasonably disinclined to disclose relevant data. No quantitative
studies of employment effects, on either the supply or the
demand side of the labor market, have been located.
For purposes of this analysis, it is assumed that juvenile
offenders face a 50 percent reduction in employment as a
result of notification. Multiplying by the average annual wages for those with less than a high-school education ($25,376
in 2015)20 yields an aggregate annual cost of $400 million to
$2 billion, depending on the proportion of registrants listed
due to offenses committed as juveniles.
The costs of unemployment will be experienced by both
offenders and their families. Families that are not estranged
from juvenile offenders are also likely to bear additional
income losses, independent of the income losses offenders experience, due to their familial association. As a placeholder, absent better information, the value of these losses
is assumed to be half as great as the value of income losses
experienced by offenders directly. This yields calculated
aggregate annual costs to families of $200 million to $1 billion per year.
Costs to homeowners: The lion’s share of costs from notification is, ironically, borne by the same people the process is
supposed to benefit: neighbors. Like other locational attributes of housing (e.g., the quality of an assigned elementary
school), the value of locational disamenities also is capitalized in the value of residential real estate. While it may be
intuitively obvious that one’s neighbors affect property values, it historically has not been possible to measure neighbor “quality.” The establishment of publicly available sexoffender registries changed this, at least with respect to this
particular type of neighbor.
The best available estimates in the literature found 2.5 percent and 3.7 percent declines in the value of homes located
within 0.1 mile of a registered sex offender.21 The higher

20. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015).
21. Linden and Rockoff (2008) and Pope (2008).

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 11

­ gure yields a calculated loss per offender of $160,000.22
fi
Losses disappeared when an offender moved away, effectively cementing causality.23 These costs range from $5 billion
to $30 billion per year, depending on the proportion of registrants listed due to offenses committed as juveniles. Note
that these costs do not reflect the value of actually preventing
sex offenses, whether committed by a registered offender or
anyone else. This cost is strictly a disamenity value, as the
market measures it, for living within 0.1 mile of a registered
sex offender.
To be sure, these costs generally would be realized when only
if a homeowner decides to sell. There are other ways disamenity value could be realized, however. For example, a homeowner who sought to refinance would receive an appraised
value a few percentage points below expectations. Some
homeowners could be denied refinancing, or only allowed
to refinance a smaller amount, depending on their equity.
Whether this happens in any individual case depends greatly
on what home appraisers deem to be appropriate comparable properties. Finally, homes beyond 0.1 mile, and thus
outside the affected zone, also could be appraised at lower
values, if homes within that radius were used as comps.
For benefit-cost analysis, it does not matter whether benefits are known or costs are realized. A policy that reduced
juvenile sex offenses by half, but which was not generally
recognized as having accomplishing anything, nevertheless would produce substantial social benefits. A policy that
imposes costs that no one sees still imposes costs.
Costs to renters and landlords: In neighborhoods where
most people rent, and especially in neighborhoods that consist of multifamily housing, the disamenity value of co-location with a registered sex offender would be borne different
ways by tenants and landlords. For tenants, the amount they
are willing to pay in rent would decline if they are co-located
near a registered sex offender, quite possibly by a lot. Many
renters not accommodated with lower rents would choose
to move. For landlords, lower rents reduce the market value
of the rental property. Renters bear these costs only if they
are, for whatever reason, unable to negotiate lower rents or
cannot move.
This leads to an important insight. Landlords need not have
any animus toward registered offenders, nor need they have
an altruistic interest in their renters’ welfare, to be highly
motivated to exclude registered sex offenders as renters.
Property value losses alone are sufficient to explain this
behavior.

22. Linden and Rockoff (2008), p. 1116: $60 million in losses divided by 373 offenders
yields $160k per offender. A similar calculation cannot be readily performed from
Pope (2008).
23. Pope (2008).

Costs to businesses: Businesses expend resources utilizing
online registries to collect information about registered sex
offenders who apply for jobs or who already work for them.
They would not bear these costs if the registry were nonpublic. Search costs are calculated by multiplying the number of annual searches of the federal registry (2.4 billion) by
the proportion (30 percent) of searches that are direct to the
registry (i.e., not via a search engine); the average number
of hours (0.05) spent per search; and the value of employer
time ($100/hour).24 Aggregate search cost is calculated at $3
billion per year.
Employers who perform searches of current employees face
a difficult decision if they get positive information. In many
states, it is a violation of labor law to terminate an employee
based on sex-offender registration. On the other hand, if they
do not terminate an employee-registrant, they risk litigation
from other employees alleging a hostile work environment.
Estimates of these costs have not been located in the literature and constitute a major gap in the cost analysis. What
employers actually do is probably very difficult to learn for a
number of reasons, including their reasonable disinclination
to reveal the information.
Costs to schools: Schools have additional responsibilities to
utilize and respond to registry data. No credible estimates of
this cost have been located in the literature. The cost analysis
assumes that schools expend $1,000 per offender to adapt to
their presence, mitigate any real or perceived risks they pose,
and manage relations with other students. In any one year,
costs are borne only for those juveniles contemporaneously
arrested for sex offenses, so aggregate costs to schools are
calculated at $7 million per year.
Costs to the public: Search costs borne by the public are
calculated in a similar fashion as business search costs. The
proportion of searches assigned to the public is higher (70
percent), based on the fraction of searches reaching the federal registry through a referral or search engine. The value
of time is assumed to be $30/hour. Aggregate cost to the
public from searches is calculated at $200 million to $1 billion, depending on the proportion of registrants listed due to
offenses committed as juveniles.
Unquantified costs: Probably the most important unquantified costs are the costs of underreporting and the opportunity cost of precautions taken by the public in response
to registry information learned through public notification.
The largest category of juvenile sex offenses is offenses committed against family members. As it becomes more widely
understood that family members bear substantial costs when
they report offenses, it becomes entirely rational to choose
24. The number of searches of the federal registry is multiplied by 1.5 to account for
the 20 states that maintain their own registries.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 12

TABLE 6: COSTS OF APPLYING SEX-OFFENDER-NOTIFICATION LAWS TO JUVENILES
COST TYPE

CALCULATED QUANTITY

UNIT VALUE ($)

ANNUAL ($M)

PRESENT VALUE ($M)

Registered juveniles (5%)

32,713

12,688

400

6,000

Registered juveniles (17%)

109,044

12,688

1,000

20,000

Registered juveniles (33%)

196,279

12,688

2,000

40,000

200

3,000

On juvenile offenders (lost income) a

ON JUVENILE OFFENDERS’ FAMILIES (LOST INCOME INDEPENDENT OF OFFENDERS’) B
Registered juveniles (5%)

65,476

6,344

Registered Juveniles (17%)

109,044

6,344

700

10,000

Registered juveniles (33%)

196,279

6,344

1,000

20,000

32,713

160,000

5,000

70,000

Registered Juveniles (17%)

109,044

160,000

20,000

200,000

Registered Juveniles (33%)

196,279

160,000

30,000

400,000

1,058,907,459

3

3,000

50,000

Registered Juveniles (5%)

32,713

2,538

100

1,000

Registered Juveniles (17%)

109,044

2,538

300

4,000

Registered Juveniles (33%)

196,279

2,538

500

7,000

Adaptation/mitigation) f

7,000

1,000

7

100

Registry searches g

7,000

10

0.07

1

Registered Juveniles (5%)

123,655,870

2

200

3,000

Registered Juveniles (17%)

412,186,234

2

500

9,000

Registered Juveniles (33%)

On neighbors (lost property value) c
Registered juveniles (5%)

ON EMPLOYERS
Registry searches d
Adaptation/mitigation) e

ON SCHOOLS

On public
Registry searches h

741,935,221

2

1,000

20,000

UNDERREPORTING OF OFFENSES I

0

0

0

0

Additional precaution

0 

0

0

0

j

On the criminal justice system k
 COSTS OF NOTIFICATION

 

 

 

 

Registered Juveniles (5%)

 0

0

10,000

100,000

Registered Juveniles (17%)

 0

0 

30,000

400,000

Registered Juveniles (33%)

 0

0 

40,000

500,000

All values reported with one significant figure.
a. Major gap. No credible estimates in literature. Calculations provided for 50 percent and 100 percent lost income. Unit value is annual wage of non-HS graduate from BLS (2015).
b. Major gap. No credible estimates in literature. Family income loss assumed to be 50 percent of offender income loss. Result is insensitive to choice of percentage.
c. Unit value per offender from Linden (2008).
d. 30 percent of federal registry searches (covering 30 states) multiplied by 30/20. Assumes unit search cost = $3.
e. Major gap. Assumes 50 percent of registrants listed for juvenile offenders are employed; matches income loss assumption; and adaptation/mitigation costs 10 percent of wages. For current
employees, any action could lead to civil liability. For prospective employees, rejection is fairly simple, even if prohibited by law.
f. Costs of isolating/supervising. Monitoring offender-students. Assumes schools must adapt/mitigate for all registered juveniles arrested during current year. Separate from employer costs.
g. Assumes schools conduct searches for all registered juveniles arrested during current year.
h. 70 percent of federal registry searches (covering 30 states) multiplied by 30/20; Assumes unit search cost = $3.
i. Major gap. No credible estimates in literature. Because families bear financial consequences of offenders’ reduced educational and employment opportunities, substantial underreporting of
family-related offenses is likely.
j. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Type and frequency of additional precautionary actions taken in response to registry information are unknown. These costs exist even if benefits equal zero. If benefits exist, these costs are likely to be substantial. Only the fraction attributable to juvenile sex offenders is counted, making the aggregate amount small.
k. Minor gap. No credible estimates in literature. Cost consists of operating the online registry.

R STREET POLICY STUDY: 2015 THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF SUBJECTING JUVENILES TO SEX-OFFENDER REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION 13

not to report all but the most heinous offenses. Only anecdotal information is available concerning the opportunity costs
of notification-induced precaution. This cost is not quantified; it was not quantified for registration, and any cost estimate would have to be disentangled between registration
and notification.
A second unquantified cost is the value of additional precautions taken by the public in response to publicly available
registry information. The type, frequency and unit cost of
precautionary actions taken in response to registry data are
all unknown. Nonetheless, these costs could be substantial,
especially when notification reveals that a sex offender lives
very close. As a thought experiment, assume that only those
single-family homeowners who suffer disamenity value from
living near registered sex offenders also expend nontrivial
resources trying to reduce risk—or, what is empirically the
same, thing, trying to reduce the magnitude of the disamenity value. For every 1 percent of disamenity value these
households expend in response to registry data, aggregate
annual cost would range from $50 million to $300 million
per year, depending on the proportion of registrants listed
due to offenses committed as juveniles. Households may well
be willing to spend $1,600 to reduce risk or attempt to mitigate a much larger disamenity value. These costs could be
much greater for households living in multifamily housing.
Just the cost of moving could be this large.
Aggregate social costs: When quantifiable costs are
summed, they range from $10 billion to $40 billion per year,
depending on the proportion of registrants listed due to
offenses committed as juveniles. About half of these costs
consist of property value losses to those who live within 0.1
mile of a registered offender. Recall that these costs are not
related to the risk of being victimized by a recidivist offender; this is a disamenity value associated with living near an
offender, independent of any action the offender might take.

3. Net Benefits
Because no credible benefits can be identified, notification
laws appear to produce only costs.
Table 7 presents the net benefits of applying notification laws
to juvenile sex offenders. Because the best point estimate of
benefits is zero, net benefits are -$10 billion to -$40 billion
per year.

TABLE 7: NET BENEFITS OF APPLYING SEX OFFENDER
­N OTIFICATION LAWS TO REGISTERED JUVENILES
Net Benefits

Annual ($M)

Present value ($M)

Registered juveniles (5%)

-10,000

-100,000

Registered juveniles (17%)

-30,000

-400,000

Registered juveniles (33%)

-40,000

-600,000

All values reported with one significant figure.

4. Sensitivity Analysis
No sensitivity analysis is needed with respect to benefits; the
best estimate of benefits is zero, and even if benefits exist,
they likely would be minor. Aggregate social cost is sensitive
to a small number of parameters, the uncertainty of which
could be reduced with additional research.
Costs to neighbors of the disamenity value of living near
registered sex offenders: Economic theory and lay intuition both support the empirical evidence that living near
registered sex offenders is a disamenity that people will pay
substantial amounts to avoid. Two well-conducted hedonic
studies (Linden and Rockoff 2008; Pope 2008) have been
performed to estimate the magnitude of disamenity value
and they obtained strikingly similar results. One of the studies (Pope 2008) was able to demonstrate that the disamenity
value disappeared when offenders moved away, which offers
strong evidence of causality.
Nonetheless, the magnitude of disamenity depends on
whether these results can be extrapolated nationwide. Arguing in favor of extrapolation is that communities studied
were fairly typical; that they are located in different states;
and that, as previously noted, similar results were obtained.
Arguing against extrapolation is that that there are just two
hedonic property valuation studies and that nationwide variation in housing prices and locational factors is much greater
than seen in these two communities. Average home prices
there were $144,000 and $172,000, less than the contemporaneous nationwide median purchase price and much less
than values found in major metropolitan areas. The extrapolation performed here does not adjust for the range in property values in the United States, thus failing to account for
higher valued property elsewhere.
The cost analysis also assumes the disamenity value is proportional to price and not composed of both fixed and variable effects. Performing additional hedonic studies, most
notably studies in communities with heterogeneous housing, would be necessary to develop a more refined extrapolation procedure.
Costs to offenders from reduced employment opportunities:
Costs to offenders of reduced employment opportunity are

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sensitive to the wage rate that registered offenders otherwise
would earn and the proportion of them who are rendered
unemployed (and perhaps minimally employable). Using the
wage rate for non-high school graduates may make sense
for juvenile offenders, given the available evidence on their
typical socioeconomic status, but it has important limits. For
example, it understates income losses to juvenile offenders
who otherwise would have been expected to earn post-secondary degrees.
To illustrate the possible effects of this assumption, costs
were calculated using the alternative assumption that
income losses were twice as high (i.e., ~$51k). Calculated
income lost by offenders increases from a range of $200
million to $1 billion per year to a range of $400 million to
$2 billion. These are obviously large proportional increases,
but they are swamped by the range of costs from disamenity
value ($5 to 30 billion).
Costs from underreporting: The literature offers little insight
about the social cost of underreporting, but the frequency
with which underreporting is said to be a serious problem
argues persuasively that it is a material component of a comprehensive cost analysis, especially for notification. There
are numerous anecdotes in the popular press about juveniles unexpectedly caught up in registration and notification regimes, and as a result, having substantial difficulty
securing steady employment. As awareness spreads about
how this happens, the number of sex offenses that go unreported should be expected to increase. Additional research is
needed to estimate the extent to which notification increases
underreporting, and whether any such increase depends on
the type of offense or the identity of the victim.

SECTION IV: PROSPECTIVE BENEFIT-COST
ANALYSIS
The retrospective benefit-cost analysis indicates that registration alone is unlikely to produce net social benefits. Costs
to offenders registered due to offenses committed as juvenile
are limited to paperwork burdens which, though nontrivial,
do not directly impede social reintegration. Benefits consist
of the proportion of deterrence attributable to sex offenses not committed by juvenile offenders and each sex crime
deterred has high social value.
However, the analysis also shows that public notification
is almost certainly a highly cost-ineffective way to reduce
future sex offenses. No evidence has been found indicating
that there are any social benefits. Thus, reform of notification laws appears to be the most plausible class of reform
alternative that warrants consideration from an economicefficiency perspective.

A. Important caveats regarding reform
All reforms are limited in what they can achieve, because they
can’t reverse what already has occurred. Moreover, affirmative information-disclosure policies only can be promulgated
once. Information that has been disclosed cannot be made
confidential retrospectively. Finally, because information
disclosure is directly affected by technological change, the
advance of information technology presents a special hurdle
in the production of social benefits from reform.

B. The principle of sunk costs
Financial resources expended to comply with the AWA and
its predecessors obviously can’t be recovered. Most obviously, this includes the fixed costs of establishing the state and
federal registries. Less obviously, perhaps, is that the presumably unintended, long-term costs on offender employment and neighborhood property values also can’t easily be
reversed. If all juvenile offenders were summarily exempt
from public notification and eliminated from online searches
of state and federal registries, prior notifications would not
automatically be “forgotten.” The sunk cost of notification
would diminish over time at no faster than the half-life of
collective human memory.
The extent to which these sunk costs actually are “sunk”
depends on the mechanism by which the costs are transmitted to the market. For example, if prospective employers rely only on the current registry and lack access to or
ignore historical registration status, then removal from the
registry—or more precisely, from public notification of registry status—allows benefits to begin accruing immediately.
Similarly, if the disamenity capitalized into property value
reflects only the current registry, then removal from the registry may cause the disamenity value to disappear. Additional
research is required to sort out these timing questions.

C. Technological advancements reduce potential
benefits of reform
The ubiquity of the Internet means that, however short
the half-life of human memory might be, its capacity to be
refreshed at low cost is virtually unlimited. Thus, constitutional and statutory rights to privacy are increasingly theoretical in character; attempting to protect privacy in the age
of the Internet may have the ironic effect of creating celebrities out of those who want to be recluses.25 Even the concept
of privacy rights has taken on an otherworldly character with
25. Mario Costeja González sued La Vanguardia Ediciones SL and Google because
searches of his name revealed “links to two pages of La Vanguardia’s newspaper, of
January and March 1998 … contain[ing] an announcement for a real-estate auction
organised following attachment proceedings for the recovery of social security debts
owed by Mr. Costeja González” even though those proceedings had been resolved.
See Court of Justice of the European Union (2014). The plaintiff prevailed in law, but
the opinion delivered in his favor made the whole world knowledgeable of the very
facts he sought to suppress in Catalonia.

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the advent of social media, which by its very design requires
users to substantially relinquish privacy rights. Worries
about government surveillance of this information abound,26
but the mere presence of information in the public domain
means that the costs to juvenile offenders of public notification are, for all practical purposes, already sunk. Nearly all
benefits from reform will accrue from the non-registration
or nondisclosure of registry status of new juvenile offenders.

D. Reform alternatives warranting consideration
on economic-efficiency grounds
Retrospective benefit-cost analysis places the burden on the
government to show that the benefits of registration or notification exceed the costs. This reflects best practice in the
field. Due to the unique coercive power of government, the
absence of evidence of net social benefits that would result
from government action should be construed as support for
the status quo ante regulation.
Prospective benefit-cost analysis proceeds differently. The
status quo is not the unregulated state but one in which the
annual flows of benefits and costs identified in the retrospective analysis continue without limit. Therefore, the identity
of benefits and costs are reversed; what counted as a benefit
in retrospective analysis is a cost of reform, and what counted as a cost is now a benefit if it can be avoided.
In a similar vein, the cost of establishing state registries is
now sunk. Immediately after the AWA’s enactment, a credible case could be made that the costs to the states of constructing federally compliant registries exceeded the value
of lost Byrne grant transfer payments.27 But these costs are
now sunk, making it much less likely that it is in a state’s
financial interest to accept the cost of lost Byrne grant payments in return for the benefit of restored state sovereignty
over juvenile sex-offender policy.28
The first subsection below discusses a reform alternative
that is not inconsistent with the AWA, thus posing no credible risk of losing Byrne-grant transfer payments. The second subsection discusses reform alternatives that likely are
inconsistent. Whether the Department of Justice would act
in accordance with its authority to cut Byrne-grant funding,
or whether a state has other tools to prevent such an action,
26. See, e.g., Semitsu (2011).
27. The Justice Policy Institute (2008) alleged that the states’ cost of implementing
the AWA vastly exceeded the value of Byrne-grant funds lost from noncompliance.
The method used to derive state costs was fairly primitive. More recent reports have
reached similar qualitative conclusions, but methodological questions remain. See,
e.g., Scott (2011).
28. Byrne-grant funds were about $200 million in 2009 (Justice Policy Institute
(2008)), rising to about $375 million in 2015 (Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
(2015)). If all states decided to walk away from adherence to AWA registration and
notification provisions, they would collectively lose less than $40 million per year.
Nonetheless, this is much less than the likely annual costs to state governments of
maintaining their registries.

is beyond the scope of this analysis. The discussion assumes
that no cuts would in fact occur or that a state has independently decided that the benefit of restored state sovereignty
outweighs the cost of the lost transfer payments.

1. Reforms consistent with the AWA
The principle reform alternative is prosecutorial discretion.
Given the dearth of juveniles on public registries, it appears
that this is standard practice in most (or perhaps all) states.
The largest fraction of juveniles on any state registry found
by Ackerman, et al., (2011) was 2 percent (i.e., between 1.50
percent and 2.49 percent). This suggests that nearly all juvenile sex offenders currently are directed away from the registration and notification systems. Studies performed in South
Carolina29 and Massachusetts30 indicate this is commonplace
in those states. The extent to which other states share this
practice remains to be determined by future research.
Prosecutors have always had, and the AWA did nothing to
impede, the option of charging juveniles in adult courts. It
cannot be discerned how often this occurs, and registration
and notification laws do not appear to have any theoretically
predicted incentive effect on this choice. Thus, no qualitative
prediction can be offered concerning the effect of a shift in
the use of adult courts—in either direction—on social benefits and costs.

2. Reforms that likely result in noncompliance
with the AWA
The alternatives discussed below are assumed to result in at
least potential noncompliance with the AWA. Whether such
conflicts would, in fact, occur depends on state law. Future
research must be performed to determine if these reforms
can be achieved without violating the AWA.
Exempting from notification different groups of offenders
registered due to offenses committed as juveniles : A review
of the various tools used to assess sex-offense recidivism risk
is beyond the scope of this analysis. Nonetheless, risk assessment remains, in principle, a near-universally approved
approach to risk management. A crude and arbitrary form
of risk assessment is prescribed in the AWA for determining
the length of registration and the frequency of updates; more
sophisticated forms of risk assessment are key elements of
the clinical treatment of juvenile offenders. States are free to
devise and apply their own risk-assessment methods.
Creating or expanding the domain of exempt offenders
would have benefits and costs of similar type, but different
magnitude. Benefits would be proportionate to the number
29. Letourneau, Armstrong, Bandyopadhyay and Sinha (2012).
30. Wright (2008), discussing results of his unpublished doctoral dissertation.

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Marginal	Benefit	and	Cost	

FIGURE 3: EXEMPTING JUVENILE SEX OFFENDERS FROM NOTIFICATION

Marginal	
Cost	
Marginal	Benefit	

0%	

A	

B	

Propor on	of	Offenders	Exempted	from	No fica on	
Ordered	from	Lowest	to	Highest	Risk	of	Recidivism	

of offenders exempted. Social costs would be negligible for
most juvenile offenders but considerable for a few.
Figure 3 displays these concepts graphically, showing the
marginal benefits and costs of exempting different fractions
of offenders from notification requirements. It is assumed
that offenders can be ranked, at least in groups, from lowest to highest risk of sex-offense recidivism. The marginal
benefit of exemption is likely to rise slowly as the fraction
exempted approaches 100 percent. Notification imposes
essentially fixed costs on offenders, their families and their
neighbors. However, notification imposes a combination
of fixed and variable costs on others, such as schools and
employers, depending on sex-offense recidivism risk. The
elimination of these costs is the social benefit of exemption.
The marginal cost of exemption depends almost entirely on
sex offense recidivism risk. While this risk appears to be low
for most juveniles, it is substantial for a small cohort.31 The
marginal social cost of exemption thus begins very close to
zero and rises slowly over the majority of offenders. In the
diagram, sex offense recidivism risk is portrayed as a geometrically rising function.
Consider A, B, C and D as alternative fractions of juvenile
offenders exempted from registration, where D is equivalent
to simply eliminating the notification requirement for juveniles. Fractions A and B have marginal benefits substantially
greater than marginal costs, so both of them offer net social
benefits. Fraction C is the unique point where marginal benefit and marginal cost are equal, the economically efficient
31. Tewksbury and Jennings (2010), Tewksbury, Jennings and Zgoba (2012).

C	

D	

100%	

exemption fraction. For every juvenile offender located to the
right of C, however, the marginal cost of exemption exceeds
marginal benefit. Unless the marginal cost curve reaches 100
percent of the juvenile-offender population below the marginal benefit curve, exempting all juvenile offenders is inefficient. This conforms to both intuition and empirical evidence: some juveniles pose a substantial risk of sex-offense
recidivism, and the social costs of the sex crimes they would
not have committed if they were subject to notification must
be counted against a 100 percent exemption policy.32
Exempting from registration different groups of offenders registered due to offenses committed as juveniles: This
array of alternatives follows along a similar trajectory. The
marginal benefit to offenders is essentially constant, but it
likely has both fixed and variable components for others.
However, because the marginal cost of notification is substantially higher than the marginal cost of registration, at
all exemption fractions, marginal benefit is lower for registration exemptions than notification exemptions. The marginal cost of exempting juveniles from registration is low for
low-risk juveniles but rises as sex-offense recidivism risk
increases.
These concepts are displayed in Figure 4. Marginal benefit
and marginal cost curves have the same general shape as in
Figure 3. Registration exemption fractions A, B, C and D from
Figure 3 are plotted. As in the case of notification ­exemption,
32. The way Figure 3 is drawn presupposes that notification would have social benefits if it were focused on the highest risk registered offender. This is consistent with
the view that overly inclusive notification schemes dilute public attention away from
offenders who pose the highest risk of reoffending.

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Marginal	Benefit	and	Cost	

FIGURE 4: EXEMPTING JUVENILE SEX OFFENDERS FROM REGISTRATION

Marginal	
Cost	

Marginal	Benefit	

0%	

A	

B	

Propor on	of	Offenders	Exempted	from	Registra on	
Ordered	from	Lowest	to	Highest	Risk	of	Recidivism	

C	

D	

100%	

marginal benefits exceed marginal costs for fraction A. The
marginal-cost curve is drawn so that the economically efficient exemption fraction is B, and fractions C (the optimum
notification exemption fraction) and D both yield negative net benefits. This is mathematical; the optimal fraction
exempted from notification cannot be less than the optimal
fraction exempted from registration.

be negative (e.g., failed treatment; sex-offense recidivism),
in which case the stay, could be converted to inclusion in
notification. Like outright exemption, this approach avoids
the automatic imposition of costs. Unlike exemption, a stay
would create incentives for offenders to behave in socially
desirable ways, which the existing scheme fails to do.

Terminate the registration of offenders registered due
to offenses committed as juveniles if they would not be
required to register had they committed their offenses
today: Two decades of longitudinal data are now available. It
is certainly plausible that relatively low-risk juvenile offenders today are processed more leniently than their predecessors 10 or 20 years ago. If analysis were to show this to be
true, 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.

3. Unintended consequences of
exemptions and stays

The economic efficiency case for this alternative is similar
to other exemption proposals. In addition, there is an equity
argument that historic offenders (and the neighborhoods in
which they live) should be relieved of burdens that would not
be imposed under the same circumstances today.
Stay notification pending future good conduct: An alternative to exempting certain categories of juvenile offenders
would be to stay notification pending some future adverse
event. This event could be positive (e.g., successful completion of a treatment program; absence of any form of recidivism), in which case, the stay could be converted to an
exclusion from notification. Alternatively, the event could

For net benefits of reform to be positive, it is not necessary
for the riskiest exempted registrants to pose less sex-offenserecidivism risk than the least risky juveniles not exempted.
What matters are the relative magnitudes of the risk-weighted sums of the exempt and non-exempt fractions. For these
relative magnitudes to be reliably estimated, risk assessment
must have a high degree of accuracy. False positives (i.e.,
juvenile offenders exempted who recidivate) are sources of
new social cost that must be taken into account. The higher
the false positive rate, the lower will be the social benefits of
reform and the greater will be its political controversy.
Table 8 illustrates how unintended social costs would result
for any exemption fraction. Inevitably, there will be some
exempted offenders who commit new sex offenses. These
offenses are unambiguously social costs and should not
be dismissed. Whether they are false positives, however,
depends on whether the exemption is the proximate cause
of their sex-offense recidivism—that is, would registration or
notification (as appropriate) have prevented the offense? The
best evidence is that registration prevents one incident in
eight. Yet it is unlikely that notification would have prevented any subsequent offense. This matters because the exemp-

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tion is likely to be blamed whenever an exempted offender
recidivates, irrespective of whether the offense would have
occurred anyway. This may lead policymakers to desire that
any choice of exemption fraction include substantial risk
aversion.
Of course, it is also true that any choice of exemption fraction will exclude some offenders who do not commit future
offenses. For these offenders, being left out of the exemption
means the social benefits that could have been obtained by
exempting them remain unrealized. A more liberal exemption rule would enable these benefits to be realized, but only
by accepting a higher rate of false positive, higher unintended social costs and greater political risk.
TABLE 8: UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF REGISTRATION AND
NOTIFICATION EXEMPTION
Exemption
Category
Sex
Offense
Committed
After Reform

Exempt

Nonexempt

Yes

Potential False Positive
Social cost = marginal
damage if reasonably
attributable to exemption

No Change
No social costs

No

No Change
No social costs

False Negative
No social costs
Unrealized social
benefits

4. Improved risk assessment
The AWA mandated a three-tiered scheme for determining
the length of time sex offenders must register. However, the
scheme relied exclusively on attributes of the offense for
which an offender was convicted in adult courts or adjudicated delinquent in juvenile courts. That assignment rule
was rational if the likelihood and type of future offense is
accurately and exclusively predicted by the type of past
offense.33 But Congress had no evidence indicating this
assumption was true. Subsequent research (though using
admittedly small samples) has not shown that registration
status is predictive.
A review of the validity and reliability of juvenile-sex-offender risk assessment is beyond the scope of this analysis. Nonetheless, a rigorous, policy-neutral review should be conducted and validated before proceeding with any of the potential
reforms listed here. Each reform alternative assumes that the
risk of sex-offense recidivism can be ranked, at least in broad
groups commensurate with proposed exemption rules. It
33. The inference is logical, and is recognized by criminologists in the field. See
Letourneau, Armstrong, Bandyopadhyay and Sinha (2012), p. 203; and Caldwell,
Ziemke and Vitacco (2008), p. 90.

must be true, for example, that the estimated risk of sexoffense recidivism, weighted by its social cost, is less for an
exempt than a nonexempt group. All other factors held constant, the greater the difference in cumulative risk between
the exempt and nonexempt fractions, the greater will be the
net social benefit of the proposed reform.

E. Distributional effects
Benefit-cost analysis treats effects the same, regardless who
bears costs or collects benefits. Net benefit is the sum of
aggregate benefits less the sum of aggregate costs. For various reasons, however, economically efficient outcomes often
are not always preferred by the public. One reason is that
benefits and costs may be distributed unequally. The public
also may care about the identities of “winners” and “losers,”
and it may care a lot when others “win” and they “lose.”
Reforming juvenile-sex-offender laws is an example where
“winners” and “losers” appear to be different people. The
social costs of the reform alternatives suggested here would
be widely dispersed. There is no subset of the population
that would be expected to bear a disproportionate share of
the increased risk of sex-offense recidivism, whatever it is.
Social benefits, however, would tend to be focused. For registration exemptions, exempt juvenile offenders and their
families would capture virtually all of the benefits. Benefitcost analysis may ignore this fact, but the public might not be
indifferent. For notification, the major beneficiaries would
not be offenders or their families; it would be their neighbors and landlords, who would avoid the disamenity value
that listing on the registry imposes on their real estate. Other
third parties, such as schools and employers, would also benefit. They could reduce or eliminate expenditures to manage
employee relationships and labor-law liability risks.
Proponents of reform should recognize that the distribution of benefits and costs will matter, possibly more than
aggregate benefits and costs. The public is likely to be more
interested in reducing costs borne by neighbors, schools and
employers than in reducing costs to juvenile offenders, sympathetic anecdotes notwithstanding.34

1. Practical considerations for reform alternatives
The alternatives described here assume that juvenile sex
offenders can be ranked in order of the expected social costs
of sex-offense recidivism. Expected social costs equal the
weighted sum of each potential future sex offense multiplied
by the probability of occurrence and the unit social costs each
34. Some members of the public will oppose exemptions from notification even if it
conveys no reliable or useful information. For that reason, proponents of reform may
have more success focusing public attention on how existing law imposes unintended
costs on third parties.

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offense entails. A high level of precision in risk assessment is
not essential for this analysis, because each exemption alternative is binary. However, a high degree of accuracy in risk
assessment is important because inaccuracy leads to misclassification. Misclassification, in turn, leads to false negatives
and (more importantly) false positives. The aggregate value
of the weighted sum of false negatives and (especially) false
positives must be accounted for in the estimation of social
benefits and costs of each exemption alternative.
Substantial resources have been devoted to developing and
refining risk-assessment tools to predict future sex-offense
recidivism risk. The reform alternatives suggested here
would leverage these investments into public policy and
make additional investments even more valuable. Every
improvement in the accuracy of risk assessment has the
capacity to reduce the social cost of misclassification, thus
making reform by targeted exemption more attractive.
One of the touchstones of juvenile justice policy is the belief
that juvenile and adult sex offenders are (mostly) different,
thereby establishing a plausible scientific predicate for treating (most) juvenile offenders differently. The development of
validated tools for objectively, accurately and reproducibly
assessing the risk of juvenile sex offender recidivism is therefore key to transforming this belief into public policy. The
reforms listed above—and quite likely, any other reforms—
are infeasible unless and until this step is completed satisfactorily. The public is likely to be highly risk averse with
respect to policy choices that are framed as potential losses,
which any relaxation of registration and/or notification regulations on juvenile offenders would appear to be. Framing
reform as offering a large reduction in social costs to third
parties (and only incidentally to juvenile offenders) could
help overcome psychological barriers to adoption.35

2. Political considerations for reform alternatives
Sex offenses, and especially the subset of offenses that
involve child victims, elicit emotive factors observed with
few other risks. The legislative history of federal regulation
includes many claims that even the most draconian requirements were justified if they could prevent even a single
(child) sex crime. This does not mean Congress ignored the
social costs of its actions. It could, for example, have made
the AWA even stricter, but refrained from doing so. Its decision to stop where it did and not go the next step, or the step
after that, proves there is a limit on how much cost can be
politically imposed and socioeconomically endured.
Nevertheless, any reform proposal that exempts some juvenile sex offenders from registration and/or notification must
contend with the near certainty that relaxation of regulatory
35. See Tversky and Kahneman (1986).

requirements increases the actual and (especially) perceived
risk of sex offense recidivism. The change in incidence may
be undetectable using even the best available analytic methods, but an inability to detect an increase is not neither statistical nor (especially) popular proof that an increase did not
occur. Moreover, when an exempt juvenile offender recidivates, there will be a substantial backlash. The economic
explanation that the social costs of this increase in risk is
greatly exceeded by the social benefits of exemption is highly
unlikely to be persuasive.
Reform also may encounter entrenched groups of rent seekers that populate the cottage industry created by the AWA
and its predecessors. These groups include nongovernmental organizations, background-search firms and law-enforcement agencies (or their leaders) that are invested in the notification system as it stands today.
Reform also must contest with the fact that public support
can be substantial for legislation that imposes extraordinarily
high social costs without any credible evidence of social benefit. Since 2004, Pennsylvania has enacted 23 laws that “significantly impact the reporting, investigation, assessment,
prosecution and judicial handling of child abuse and neglect
cases.”36 A bill enacted Oct. 22, 2014, requires every person
who serves in any paid or volunteer capacity responsible for
the welfare of a child or having direct contact with children
to obtain advance permission from the state.37 Securing permission requires obtaining a state criminal-history report, a
child-abuse history clearance and, in many cases, a fingerprint-based federal criminal history report as well.38 Any
person responsible for hiring or obtaining volunteers who
violates these requirements commits a third-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by fine not exceeding $1,000 or
imprisonment not exceeding one year.
Despite these social costs, and the absence of credible evidence that any social benefits will result, there appears to
be no public opposition to these laws, even from dedicated
opponents of governmental acts that impair privacy and liberty. Their lack of interest may be a pragmatic recognition
that opposition to even draconian laws risks being accused
of favoring child molesters over children.

36. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Office of Children Youth and Families (2015a).
37. Pennsylvania Act 153 (P.L. 2529) (2014). The bill passed by a vote of 175-18. See
Pennslyvania House of Representatives (2014).
38. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Office of Children Youth and Families (2015b).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard B. Belzer is an associate fellow of the R Street Institute.
Since 2001, he has been an independent consultant in regulation,
risk, economics and information quality.
From 1988-1998, he was an economist with the Office of
Information and Regulatory Affairs, the unit within the U.S. Office
of Management and Budget that reviews draft regulations before
they are published for public comment or promulgated as rules.
In that role, he was responsible for reviewing regulatory analyses
prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and
Drug Administration and various components of the Departments of
Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and the Interior.

Court of Justice of the European Union. 2014. PRESS
RELEASE No 70/14: Judgment in Case C-131/12 Google
Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección
de Datos, Mario Costeja González; An Internet search
engine operator is responsible for the processing that it
carries out of personal data which appear on Web pages
published by third parties. Available: http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-05/
cp140070en.pdf [accessed June 5, 2015,].

From 1998-2001, he was visiting professor of public policy at
Washington University in St. Louis and director of the regulatory
studies program at the university’s Center for the Study of American
Business (now the Weidenbaum Center).

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2015. National IncidentBased Reporting System. Available: http://www.fbi.gov/
about-us/cjis/ucr/nibrs [accessed Jan. 23 2015].

He was twice elected treasurer of the Society for Risk Analysis and
twice elected secretary/treasurer of the Society for Benefit-Cost
Analysis. In addition, he was appointed a senior fellow of the Cecil
and Ida Green Center for the Study of Science and Society at the
University of Texas at Dallas.

Human Rights Watch. 2013. Raised on the Registry: The
Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender
Registries in the U.S. New York: HRW.

Richard earned his master’s in agricultural economics from the
University of California at Davis, his master’s in public policy from
the Harvard Kennedy School and his doctorate in public policy from
Harvard University.

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