- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s Sex Offender Registry marked its 20th anniversary this year. Judging the list for effectiveness, though, depends less on longevity and more on users’ expectations.

The law went into effect in 1995 and the state’s website, iowasexoffenders.com, launched five years later.

As of Sept. 11, the registry contained information on 5,111 convicted offenders. Of those, the most - 626 - live in Polk County. The lowest number - four - are registered in Adams County.

Sgt. Steve Petersen with the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office has been involved with Iowa Sex Offender Registry since its inception.

“The main idea behind the registry is to know where the registrant calls home. Now with Internet records on most of the registrants, that information is available 24/7/365 to anyone who wants to inquire about a certain person; inquire who lives in or near their neighborhood; and areas where their children frequent,” Petersen told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/1QJOXnI).

He added parents can also, if they choose, show children photographs of people on the registry.

Terry Cowman, a special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, oversees the registry. He supervises 13 civilian employees who verify and input data for the website as well as five special agents who investigate non-compliance issues.

“The value of the Iowa Sex Offender Registry I can sum up in two words: information sharing,” Cowman said.

He notes anyone can go to a single source to find what may be important knowledge. From that, individuals can make decisions about how best to keep themselves and their families safe, according to Cowman.

“It’s a good public information source,” Petersen added. “It lets you know who’s living in your neighborhood.”

The registry online, though, announces goals that are more ambitious: Protect the public. Deter offenders. Serve as an investigative tool for law enforcement officials.

On those points, the registry can claim less success, according to Petersen and researchers. Based on his experience, the list does little to prevent crime.

“I do not believe the sex offender registry laws have any deterrent to keep people from committing sexual abuse crimes - any more than the penalties for the sex crime itself deters,” Petersen said.

He added that’s true for any criminal law. As an obvious example, Petersen noted murder is illegal, but people still commit murder.

A study published in 2011 in the Journal of Law and Economics supports Petersen’s anecdotal observations.

Researchers J.J. Prescott at the University of Michigan and Jonah Rockoff at Columbia University determined laws that require sex offenders to register may, indeed, reduce the chances those people will offend again. However, the research also suggests when information about convicted sex offenders is disseminated to the public, offenders may, in fact, be more likely to commit additional crimes.

The Legislature in 2008 created the Sex Offender Research Council and charged it with research and policy analysis for sex offenses, offenders and prevention. Cowman is a member.

The Iowa Sex Offender Research Council cited Prescott and Rockoff’s study in its annual report in 2014 to the Iowa General Assembly.

“Prescott and Rockoff argue that public notification may increase stress on offenders, leading to destabilization in their community lives. The social consequence of public registration may reinforce the notion that changing behaviors would not improve offenders’ life circumstances,” according to the report.

Another researcher, Amanda Agan at the University of Chicago, examined more than 9,000 convicted sex offenders released from prison in 1994. Half were in states with a registry, half were not.

According to Agan’s comparison, those released in states with registration requirements were slightly more likely to offend again.

“Agan found little evidence to suggest that registries, or knowing where sex offenders lived or worked, improved public safety ‘either in practice or potential,’” according to the Iowa Sex Offender Research Council’s annual report.

According to the report, Agan’s research and other studies suggest that “registries largely serve a symbolic versus an instrumental purpose.”

Petersen, in his experience, finds that is true.

“I can’t really say (the registry) has helped locate the unknown person who may have committed a new crime,” he said.

“I know in a few major cases I have been involved with over the years, we have tracked down sex offenders in an area to determine if any had any involvement in the crime. None of those cases have been solved to date because we were able to develop a suspect from the sex offender registry database,” Petersen added.

Cowman, though, noted other studies support sex offender registries and their ability to deter re-offenses and protect the public.

“Protection and deterrence is still a viable part of our mission. It’s just really, really hard to measure,” he said.

Iowa’s registry website attracts more than 1 million hits per month, suggesting very strong public interest. Information, including photographs, is updated every 30 minutes.

“We don’t know what information a parent gleaned from that that helped a parent make a good decision,” Cowman added.

The Iowa Sex Offender Research Council’s annual report in 2014 noted what its members considered another reality:

“Despite evidence suggesting that registration policies do little to reduce sex offenses or improve public safety, sex offender registration and public notification are very popular,” according to the report.

That, combined with federal policies, “will continue to influence state legislation and provide a political barrier to change,” the report added.

Cowman believes the public wants the registry, is willing to pay for it and would resist any effort to restrict access or reduce the amount of available information.

“I think we would see a big uprising if that funding ever went away,” Cowman said.

“To all of a sudden not be able to get the information … to pull that away, I think there would be a strong push against that,” he added.

In the end, though, Petersen reminds the registry is not meant to be a protective shield.

“There’s nothing that I’m aware of out there that will do that … ,” he said, pointing out one of the registry’s shortcomings.

“The registry information is only as accurate as the offenders make it when they report information to the registration points. It is up to the offender/registrant to remain compliant with the registry laws,” Petersen said.

Residents should take responsibility for their safety, he said.

“People concerned about sexual crimes should be watchful of their children; know where their kids are; have some say on whom they hang around with; and listen to their children when they try to talk to them and don’t be hesitant to report suspicions,” Petersen said.

He added teens, young adults and adults should be aware of their surroundings and who they hang out with and where.

“If they feel uncomfortable in a situation, then they should get away from it, call for help or get with others to help protect them,” Petersen said.

“It is not always the people already convicted of sex crimes and registered as sex offenders to be the ones to watch out for, but more so those who are not yet known.”

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Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com

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