Project to Inform Federal and State Policies

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Assoc. Prof. Andrew Harris will lead a multi-disciplinary team researching sex offender registration and notification systems through a National Institute of Justice grant. Photo by Adrien Bisson.

By Julia Gavin

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently awarded a team led by Andrew Harris, associate professor of criminology and justice studies, a $1 million grant to conduct a study of sex offender registration and notification (SORN) systems across the United States. The 3-year, mixed–method study will be the first comprehensive, national assessment of how SORN systems operate, how registry information may be translated into the realm of public safety and how such information is used by the general public and criminal justice agencies.

“Despite years of legislative action and significant resources expended on these systems, law enforcement professionals and the public aren’t always getting the information they require,” says Harris, noting that only one third of the states, territories and tribal jurisdictions have met federal standards set by Congress in the 2006 Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. “Our study will help identify the ingredients of an effective sex offender registration system and generate recommendations for smarter systems.”

The work extends Harris’ current research on law enforcement uses and perceptions of sex offender registries – a study that is also supported by the NIJ through a $233,307 grant awarded in 2013. Building on this work, the new project will feature interviews and surveys of other criminal justice professionals, including parole and probation agencies charged with managing sex offenders in the community.

Another key study element involves a series of national and state-based citizen polls, administered through the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion under the management of Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science, to evaluate how citizens access, interpret and utilize sex offender registry information.  

Beyond the survey work, the project will include a series of in-depth operational assessments of how the nation’s state-based sex offender registries are designed and managed. One critical element of this analysis involves evaluating opportunities for improving interoperability among the registry systems in the 50 states, and between these systems and other critical information systems such as criminal history databases, day care licensing systems and motor vehicle registries. This part of the effort will be coordinated by Vinod Vokkarane, associate professor of computer and electrical engineering

Ultimately, Harris expects the project to generate a series of actionable recommendations for federal and state policymakers for improving the public safety effectiveness of the nation’s sex offender registries. 

“To date, our approach to these systems has been ‘more is better.’ Policies have emphasized putting more and more people on the registries. But that’s a blunt method,” says Harris. “We lose the ability to differentiate among offender levels of dangerousness and we overburden our system, leading to less accurate information. We really have the opportunity to make an impact on federal and state policy by seeing what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully lead to some modifications of SORN systems.”