Counting and Over-Counting the Registry

Detailed comments for Q&A # 2: “How many people are there on the registry?”

Sex crime registries have been created in all 50 states of the USA, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, other territories and possessions, and several foreign countries. How many people are listed on these registries? The only honest answer to that question is that nobody really knows, but there are a lot. The US government isn’t counting, and the states and citizen groups are wildly over-counting. Many registries include large numbers of people who have been dead for many years and others who no longer live in the states that are listing them. Despite this, it is still true that there are a lot of real people on the registries. A reasonable estimate for the United States is probably in the neighborhood of 550,000. Approximately one out of every 220 adult men in the country is on the registry.1

When the US Senate considered ways to improve the registration process in 2006, it debated a bill that included provisions (§106(c) of versions RS and ES) for the Attorney General to collect and publicly disseminate information on the number of people on the registries of each state, broken down by seriousness of their crimes and compliance with the registration requirements. It also would have required measures to ensure the accuracy of the data. Much of this bill became parts of the Adam Walsh Act, including several parts of §106, but instead of requiring the federal government to keep and publish accurate data on the registered population, §123 of the new law orders the Attorney General to develop software that will allow individual jurisdictions to track and post their own statistics, with no provision for coordinating this data collection nationally and no requirement to ensure that the data published be accurate!

There are several ways that a state’s registry count can become inaccurate.

  • Continuing to count people who are dead, even many years after the date of death indicated in the registry!
  • Continuing to count people who have permanently left the state, even after the registry indicates the new address they reported in a different state or indicates that they have been deported.
  • Counting people who are incarcerated, even if they are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The purpose of the registry is to provide information about people living “in the community,” which incarcerated people are not.
  • Counting each crime listed when a single person may be included for multiple crimes.
  • Having a registry that includes people convicted only of non-sexual crimes and reporting the total with those people as the count of the state’s sex crime registry.
These sources of error seem simple enough that they would be likely to be rare. But on the contrary, they are rampant.

Dramatic over-counting of Florida’s registry was documented by the Orlando Weekly in 2005. A comparative analysis conducted for this report found many instances of all five categories in a study of only 14 states. (See the background report, Count Analysis of the US Registries.) An example is shown in the following figure, which was taken from the Arkansas registry in September 2007. Not only had Jimmy Nipper been dead for almost five years, but when the state found out, it just noted the death in the registry and left him there! Nipper is one of 79 people who are listed on the registry as deceased, some with dates of death going back to 2001. Altogether, more than 25 percent of Arkansas’s registry consists of people who are listed on it as either dead, deported, incarcerated, or no longer in the state, as is documented in the Count Analysis report.

Why would governments inflate their registry numbers? A knowledgeable insider who asked not to be named offered the following explanations. People who are deported or move out of state may return, so the public needs to be able to watch out for them. She said there have been cases, at least two in Texas, where a person was deported, and then snuck back into the country and committed another crime. Similarly, for those who are in prison, people may want to know about them and be alert to them when they get out. Regarding dead people, she said there was actually a recommendation from the federal government to leave them on because a victim checking the registry may be alarmed if they simply disappear from it without any further information.

These explanations make some sense if one believes that the public notification purpose of the registries is valid in the first place. But keeping people on the public website for those reasons does not explain why the states would continue to include them in their counts of the number of people on them. Since the registries are nothing more than computerized databases, it is a simple matter to deduct the number of people who are dead, deported, out of state, or in prison before reporting to the public the number of registrants the state has living in the community.

The Orlando Weekly article mentioned above offered two other possible reasons for the overcounting. One is that it helps politicians whip up public support for legislation they want to pass, and that passing laws that are harsh on sex crime helps them look good and get reelected. The other is that the federal law on sex crime registries that was in place at the time of that article provided for allocation of federal funding to states partly based on the number of people on their registries. The second reason is not as obvious any longer because that language is not in the current law, the Adam Walsh Act, although registry counts remain a factor in allocation of funding for certain sex crime programs run by the Department of Justice.

For more details and analysis of the numbers, see the following two SOLR reports:

  • Published Counts of the US Registries lists official and unofficial counts of the numbers of people on all the state registries from 1998 to 2008, indicating discrepancies in the numbers, rates of change, and the “population frequency” of adult males on the registry.
  • Count Analysis of the US Registries reports on the results of original research on the registries in fourteen US jurisdictions, involving direct counts of registry records, and comparing the results to published figures.


1. For explanation of the estimates of approximately 550,000 people on the registry and 220 men per registered man, see the background report, Count Analysis of the US Registries.


Page posted on August 24, 2007, updated August 26, 2007, renamed September 20, 2007, major revision on September 20, 2007, updated January 10, 2008, September 7, 2008, January 28, 2009.
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