Lynn professor refutes claim of 100,000 missing sex offenders in new study

Adam Walsh Act deadline is tomorrow; researchers call for a more data-driven national sex offender policy

Published Jul. 26, 2011

Jill Levenson, associate professor of psychology and human services in Lynn University’s College of Liberal Education, has co-authored a new study which refutes the common claim that 100,000 sex offenders are missing. The authors call for a more data-driven national sex offender policy.

The study, “100,000 Sex Offenders Missing... or Are They? Deconstruction of an Urban Legend” was published this month in the Criminal Justice Policy Review.

Tomorrow, July 27, marks the deadline for states to comply with federal sex offender registration requirements set forth in the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. As of July 18, only eight states had been deemed to have substantially implemented these requirements, and many have called for Congress to revisit key provisions in the law. The “100,000 missing” figure was repeatedly cited in the debates leading to the law’s passage and in its subsequent re-authorization hearings earlier this year.

The study, co-authored by Levenson and Andrew Harris, a criminal justice professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, traces the origins and evolution of the “100,000 missing” figure and identifies multiple fallacies that have surrounded the statistic.

Rates of registration noncompliance among registrants living in the community varied greatly, ranging from about 1 percent in some states (e.g. Florida, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia) to about 13 percent (California, Hawaii and Oklahoma).  Nationally, the median rate of noncompliance is about 2.7 percent.

“Differences in how state systems define and capture data make it very difficult to know exactly how many sex offenders have truly gone missing,” said Levenson, “but even using the most inclusive definitions, our data suggest that the 100,000 figure is highly inflated. That figure is three to four times what the number probably is.”

This new analysis is part of a multi-phase research initiative to provide state and federal lawmakers with data to inform policies concerning the nation’s sex offender registries. “Considering how much attention Congress has paid to reforming the nation’s sex offender registries, one would expect that we’d be basing decisions on solid data,” said Harris. “But the fact is that many important policy decisions are occurring in an information vacuum. We shouldn’t be crafting national policy based on sound-bite statistics.”

Read more about Levenson and Harris’ most recent study on the University of Massachusetts Lowell website, or download the full report online.

More on Levenson:

Jill Levenson is an associate professor of human services at Lynn University and a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience treating sexual abuse victims, survivors, perpetrators and non-offending parents. Her academic focus is on sexual abuse and how offenders are categorized and treated.

Currently, Levenson, Lynn University and Debra Ainbinder, an associate professor of psychology at Lynn, are partnering with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) on a community safety implementation project to help prevent sexual assault.

The “100,000 Sex Offenders Missing... or Are They? Deconstruction of an Urban Legend” study follows Levenson’s May 2011 report that provided a snapshot of the nation's registered sex offender population. The authors were able to identify only about 4%, or 17,688, whose addresses could not be verified, despite claims by the U.S. Marshals Service that 100,000 sex offenders are missing.

Levenson is a nationally known expert on sexual violence and has become a respected authority on, among other things, laws aimed at protecting children while punishing, tracking and rehabilitating sex offenders. She has been quoted in national publications including the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, among others. She has published over 60 articles about sex crime policy and offender treatment.