Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills this session that augment or add restrictions to the behavior of registered sex offenders, of whom Texas now has over 72,000. That’s normal—sex offenders don’t have a lot of constituent clout and making them list their status on a driver’s license or social media profile is a low-cost, low-risk way to look tough on crime.
What’s unusual is that the Texas Senate recently passed a bill that would remove employer information from the public registry. Senate Bill 369 is by Houston’s Democratic state senator John Whitmire. Right now, you can look up an offender’s name, race, height, weight, hair color, eye color, shoe size, home address, birth date, and employer name and address. Dropping the last two wouldn’t be for the good of offenders, but of the businesses they work for.
“The employer didn’t commit an offense,” says Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. “There’s a lot of concern about employers being harassed, vigilantism. Certainly there are a lot of studies showing that families of sex offenders have been subject to harassment and even criminal activity.”
Levin says the House version of the bill, HB 879, also met enthusiastic support in committee.
“The risk that a sex offender may reoffend is actually lower if they’re employed,” Levin says, so along with protecting employers, the reform may increase public safety.
But that kind of pragmatism is a slippery slope toward reality-based policy. No research has ever suggested, let alone proved, that public sex offender registries prevent crime or reduce recidivism. (Check out “Life On the List,” our cover story from last June, for extensive documentation of what the list doesn’t do.) And research does show that the perennially popular laws restricting offenders’ movement, employment, schooling and home hinder successful reintegration.
The registry continues to swell, and all that monitoring takes public money and law enforcement time and attention. So will the TPPF, a free-market think tank that has supported a variety of right-on-crime reforms, ever oppose the registry itself?
“We haven’t gotten into the question of whether we should have one,” Levin says. “But there is a concern that the registry encompasses too many people that aren’t predators to be effective.”