Origin of the Registry

Additional background for the SOLR report, Introduction to the Sex Crime Registries

Most people think the sex crime registries were only recently established. However, the registry of today is the direct descendant of a program that started in the 1930s. Originally intended to keep Mafia gangsters from setting up shop in Los Angeles, it later became a tool for harassing homosexuals in the McCarthy era.





The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a quasi-government agency that publishes information about the registries, has a Web page called, Sex-Offenders: History that starts with, “Prior to 1994 few states required convicted sex offenders to register their addresses with local law enforcement.” This is true, but it gives the impression that the history of government tracking of people convicted of sex crimes started in the 1990s. That is far from true.  

Gangster Law

In 1931, the United States was gripped by the Great Depression. Mafia kingpins exerted a reign of terror over New York, Chicago, and other major centers in the Northeast. Los Angeles County district attorney Buron Fitts1 proposed an ordinance to keep organized crime out of the area. The idea, called “convict registration” or the “gangster law,” was to require anyone who had been convicted of certain crimes to register with the sheriff if they lived in the county or visited for more than five days.2 When the measure passed nearly simultaneously in the County and City of Los Angeles in 1933, it covered conviction for any felony as well as lesser drug or weapons charges.3 Many other municipalities in California and other states soon adopted similar laws.4

In the meantime, the country was also experiencing growing anxiety about another kind of crime: sex. A tug-of-war was building between social liberals who viewed consensual sexual activity as a private matter that was no business of the law and moralists who believed that growing sexual license was ruining the society. Military and police operatives began using subterfuge to entrap homosexuals in lewd acts.5 Consensual homosexual activity between adults was a felony, with long prison terms often followed, in many states, by indefinite civil commitment that could keep the “pervert” locked up for the rest of his life.

In 1938, the Los Angeles Police Department established its Bureau of Sex Offenses. The bureau began keeping careful records, with fingerprints and photographs, of people convicted of sex crimes, and operated a clinic for performing psychiatric evaluations of people arrested on sex charges. LAPD Chief James E. Davis6 explained the need for the bureau on “the theory that each minor sex offender is a potential major sex criminal.”7 Two years later, the Los Angeles Times reported that the records had been used to select a suspect to look for in the kidnapping of a nine-year-old girl.8  

The PTA Adds Sex

The next month, the local chapter of the Parent-Teacher Association conceived a plan for combining Chief Davis’s sex crime index with the convict registry. The organization passed a resolution at its conference on April 4, 1940, asking the city council to add certain sex crimes to the list of those that required registration. The crimes listed were child molesting, consensual oral sex, and indecent exposure.3,9

Crimes Listed in PTA’s Letter to LA City Council in 19403
Penal Code sectionDescription of Crime10
288  “lewd or lascivious act” on or with a child under 14
288a  “Sex perversions.” Participating in oral sex
311(1, 2) Indecent exposure

In its letter to the city, the PTA stated that “the safety and morals of our children are menaced through an alarming increase in cases of indecent exposure and lewd conduct.” Although the Chief of Police and the Police Commission endorsed the proposal enthusiastically, it is not clear that there had actually been a significant increase in sex crimes, according to statistics published by the Police Department during the period.

Arrest Statistics for Selected Sex Crimes in Los Angeles, 1933..40
PC §Description 1933..3411 194011
288 Sex crime on child 122155
288a Oral copulation 2422
311(1, 2) Indecent exposure 103133
647(5) Lewd vagrancy 471216
(in thousands) 1,2381,504

The crime of “lewd vagrancy,” which was (along with the similar “dissolute vagrancy”) the second most common sex crime next to prostitution, is included in this table because the letter from the PTA complained of “lewd conduct,” although this crime was not included in the list of sex crimes as originally proposed or as signed into law. Lewd and dissolute vagrancy laws were typically used in California and some other states to harass and arrest adult men seeking or engaging in consensual sexual activity with each other.13

As the PTA proposal went through the process of being turned into law, the city added more sex crimes to the original suggested list. When the ordinance passed and was signed by the mayor on September 25, it included rape, loitering around children, and consensual anal sex along with the crimes first proposed by the PTA.3

Crimes Added to PTA’s List in LA’s Registry Amendment, 19403
PC §Description of Crime10
264  Rape (intercourse with non-wife female under 18 or by force, threat, or guile)
265 Involuntary abduction of woman for marriage or sex
286  “crime against nature [anal sex] … with mankind or … animal”
647a Annoy or molest a school child or loiter around school children

Thus the innovative convict registry in 1933 to keep gangsters out of Los Angeles, seven years later also became the world’s first sex crime registry. This happened at the suggestion of the local chapter of the PTA, based on a false claim that sex crimes in the city were increasing. The crimes it covered included consensual oral and anal sex, which were illegal at the time, even between husband and wife.

Ironically, at a conference of the same local PTA chapter a few weeks later, the keynote speech stressed the importance of personal freedom in a democracy. “We must maintain our freedom to think for ourselves instead of as some dictator tells us, to listen to what we want to hear rather than what a dictator wants us to hear, to choose our education and our work according to our choice and our abilities.”14 This was stated in contrast to the rising tide of fascism in Europe at the time. Later in the meeting, a resolution was passed to send commendations to city officials for passing the ordinance to add sex crimes to the convict registry. In the spirit and attitude of the day (and, for many people in America, still today), it probably seemed perfectly natural for the measure to include oral and anal sex, thereby affirming that the personal freedom lauded was not to include the freedom for people to decide on their own how to make love. While it is true that these laws even applied between husband and wife, they were almost always used to prosecute pairs of consenting men.


From City to State to Nationwide

Although the initiative to begin the original convict registry had been taken by the County of Los Angeles and was copied by the City, it was the city that instituted the sex crime provision. The county did not follow suit immediately, but several years later, the new district attorney proposed that either the county or the state ought to adopt a similar measure.15 The California legislature followed up on the suggestion. In July 1947, the state added Section 290 to its Penal Code to require anyone in the state who has been convicted of any of a list of particular sex crimes to register with the local police. The list of crimes was somewhat further expanded from that used by the City of Los Angeles, and now included seduction by promise of marriage, incest, and lewdly influencing a person under 21 to become delinquent.16,17

Crimes Subject to Registration in California, 194717
Code §Description of Crime10
PC 261(3, 4) Rape of non-wife female by force, threat, or drug
266 Entice chaste female under 18, or trick any female, into having sex
267  Abduct female under 18 into prostitution without parents' permission
268  “Seduction.” Have sex with chaste female by promise of marriage
285 Incest (marriage or fornication with too closely related)
286  “infamous crime against nature [anal sex] … with mankind or … animal”
288 “lewd or lascivious act” on or with child under 14
288a “Sex perversions.” Participating in oral sex
311(1, 2) Indecent exposure
647a (1) Annoy or molest child. (2) Loiter around school children
WIC 702  Lewdly contribute to delinquency of a person under 21

Penal Code Section 290 remains to this day the law governing registration of sex criminals in California. As of August 2009, the list of registrable crimes for adults has grown from the eleven shown here to 169. (Juveniles have their own list of 61 crimes.)

Summary History of
Sex Crime Registry
1931• Convict registry proposed for LA County.2
1933• Convict registry established for LA County and City.3
1938• LAPD establishes sex crime index and clinic.7
1940• PTA proposes adding three sex crimes to registry.3,9
• LA City puts seven sex crimes on registry.3,9
1947• California establishes statewide registry for 11 sex crimes.16,17
1949• CA adds lewd vagrancy to registry crimes.18
1950• Over 90% of registrable arrests in LA are for consensual homosexual acts.19
1951• Arizona establishes sex crime registry.20
1950s• Florida registry.20
1960• Non-sexual municipal convict registries struck down in California.21
1961• Nevada registry.20
1963• Ohio registry.20
1967• Alabama registry.20
1987• Mississippi registry.20
1989• Montana registry.20
1993• 12 states have registry.20
1994• US requires registry in all states.22
1996• Massachusetts becomes last state to have registry.20
• US establishes federal portal for state registry data.23
2003• US requires states to put registries online.24
• US Supreme Court strikes down laws against anal and oral sex.25
2006• US requires states to expand their registries to include 14-year-olds, to lengthen duration of registration, and other changes.26
2008• US has approximately 550,000 people on the registry, including about 19,000 for crimes commited as juveniles.27
• NCMEC over-reports the number of people on the registry by over 10% at about 640,000.27
• One out of every 220 men in the US is on the registry.27

Arizona followed California’s lead and set up a sex crime registry in 1951, as did Florida later in the 1950s, Nevada in ’61, Ohio in ’63, Alabama in ’67, Mississippi in ’87, and Montana in ’89.20. By the early 1990s twelve states had established registries. In 1994, the federal government required all states to have one,22 with a three-year deadline to avoid a financial penalty. The remaining 38 states then stepped up quickly and in August 1996 Massachusetts became the last state to set one up. A national registry was established that same year to combine the data from all the state registries.23

And what happened to the gangster law that got the whole thing started? It was annulled by the California Supreme Court in 1960. The court determined that since the state had made laws about registering people for a selected set of crimes, that took jurisdiction to do so away from local governments. Since the state government had decided (and maintains to this day) that registration should only be for sex crimes, the City of Los Angeles and other municipalities are no longer free to impose their own ordinances that require registration by violent felons or any other criminals they wish to keep track of.21  

Getting the Queers

      Bayard Rustin
Black political activist Bayard Rustin was caught giving oral sex to two white men in the back seat of their car in Pasadena, CA, in 1953. He was charged with sex perversion, a felony, but pled guilty to misdemeanor lewd vagrancy, which still required him to register. All three men spent 60 days in jail for the incident.28

Although the registrable crimes included anal and oral sex, which were typically only used against homosexuals, arrests on those charges were fairly uncommon. However a change in the law in 1949 turned the registry into a tool of homosexual persecution. In that year, the legislature added lewd vagrancy as a registrable crime.18 This was represented by Penal Code Section 647(5), which specified that a “vagrant” included “Every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person, or associate of known thieves.” (“Dissolute” means, essentially, immoral.) This vague statute section had always given police great latitude in dealing with anyone they considered undesirable. In particular, it was commonly used to charge men found hanging around in parks, restrooms, or dark alleys looking for or having clandestine encounters with other men.13

Statistics from the annual report of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1950 show how the addition of lewd vagrancy began to swell the registry with homosexuals.

Criminal Charges Filed for Sex Crimes in Los Angeles, 1950
Crime Charges11 Registrable?
 Rape161Mostly yes
 Prostitution and commercial vice1,959Mostly no
 Sex perversion (i.e., homosexuality)2,225Yes
 Other sex crimes44Mostly yes

A footnote in the LAPD report explains that “sex perversion” in this table consists of the crime against nature (anal sex), sex perversion (oral sex), sodomy (also anal sex), and lewd or dissolute vagrancy (PC 647(5)). In other words, this category is a catch-all for charges that were primarily made for homosexual activities.

Since most prostitution charges were (and still are) not registrable, over 90 percent of registrable sex charges filed by the LAPD in 1950 were for “sex perversion,” i.e., primarily for homosexuality. With the addition in 1949 of lewd vagrancy to the list of registrable crimes, the terms “sex offender” and “homosexual” became largely synonymous.  

Vicious Homophobia

In the 1940s and ’50s, hatred of homosexuals was rampant, bitter, and openly expressed. A scan of the archives of the Los Angeles Times from the period shows how both government officials and the public were loud and crude in their condemnation of homosexuals, who were the people to whom the term “sex offender“ was mostly commonly applied at the time.

  • June 1938. The keynote speaker at a conference of the American Psychiatric Association explained German Nazism in terms of what he called “cultural homosexuality, ” a form of “extreme nationalism [caused by] the attractive power between persons of the same sex”29
    Sex Crime Brand?, Letter to the Editor, Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1951
    Los Angeles Times, May 31, 195130
  • November 1949. A reader wrote in that “all proven sex offenders [should] be castrated.”31
  • December 1949. In a meeting between the governor of California and senior police and medical authorities, resolutions were passed calling for the death penalty for non-murder sexual activity with a child under 14 and increasing the penalty for consensual anal sex to 20 years.32
  • January 1950. A medical doctor urged that “sex offenders … [get] indeterminate [i.e., life] sentences, on first offense, to a State institution … [a work camp] … Responsible relatives should reimburse the State.”33

    How Homosexuality Endangers your Children, Advertisement, Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1950
    Los Angeles Times, August 23, 195034
  • August 1950. A popular magazine advertized an upcoming article about homosexuality with the headlines, America’s Most Insidious Moral Problem and How Homosexuality Endangers your Children.34
  • May 1951. The speaker of the California Assembly said that “sex psychopaths might be tattooed or given some mark of distinction so that they could readily be spotted in public.”35
  • May 1951. A reader anticipated today’s registry websites when she proposed that there should be a “file [with] photographs, and all information pertaining to … these menaces to society … their residences and places of employment, as well as complete descriptions of automobiles registered to them … available to the public;”36
  • May 1951. A reader wrote in with a proposal to “brand sex offenders by removing a good-sized chunk from an ear; or better, trim both ears to a sharp peak. Even children could then identify them for what they are.”30
  • June 1951. The California Assembly passed a bill providing for automatic life sentences for certain sex crimes, with the defendant given the option to avoid prison by agreeing to be castrated.37
  • July 1951. The governor vetoed the bill because it would have created a way for people convicted of sex crimes to avoid going to prison.38
  • March 1952. California passed a law prohibiting anyone convicted of certain sex crimes (primarily homosexual activity) from being a teacher.39,16
    Sex Crime Curbing, Letter to the Editor, Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1950
    Los Angeles Times, January 12, 195033
  • September 1952. A reader wrote in, asking to “round up all sex offenders and keep them interned, giving medical treatment to those who can be cured and life terms to those that can’t … Merely to register them, like buying licenses for dogs, and then free them is a silly, costly and dangerous procedure.”40
  • March 1953. “The State Department announced today that it has fired 16 homosexuals and five other persons as security risks” in the past two months.41
  • April 1953. “‘Homosexual proclivities’ have led to the dismissal of 425 State Department employees since 1947.”42
  • August 1953. The Times’ medical columnist said that “a medical editor … once refused to let me even mention homosexualism in an article on serious neuroses. He said he was proud of the fact that he had never permitted the use of ‘that vile word’ in his journal!”43
  • October 1953. “The White House announced today that 1456 government employees were dismissed or forced to resign for security reasons in the [preceding] four months … a quick exit for drunks, homosexuals, persons classed as blabbermouths and those of questionable habits as well as outright subversives.”44


What started out as an effective tool for keeping Mafia gangsters out of Los Angeles was over the course of two decades transformed into a tool for persecution of homosexuals.  


1. For background on Fitts, see Wikipedia and excerpt from For the People — Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000 by Michael Parrish, posted by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office

2. For news accounts on the original proposal for a convict registry, see:
     • Convict Registration (), Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1931
     • 'Gangster Law' Vote Due Today () — Supervisors May Approve ex-Convict Registration — Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1931

3. The historical records on the Los Angeles City ordinances are in, for the convict registry in 1933:
     • City Council File # 4788 (1933) (), Los Angeles City Council, September 11, 1933 (Date is of first item in file.) (For Ordinance # 73013 signed 1933 09 12.)
     • Ordinance No. 73013 (), Los Angeles City Council, September 12, 1933 (Date is of signing by mayor.)
and for the sex crime amendment to the registry in 1940:
     • City Council File # 1380 (1940) (), Los Angeles City Council, April 10, 1940 (Date is of first item in file.) (For Ordinance # 83351 signed 1940 09 25.)
    The ordinances themselves are included in the council files, so usually the latter are sufficient for the full record. However, the document for Ordinance No. 73013 is of special interest. It consists of the text of LA County Ordinance No. 2339, marked up for quick conversion to a corresponding city ordinance. Council file 4788 indicates that the county ordinance passed on September 11 and that the City Council considered adopting it in parallel as an emergency measure. Dates on the newspaper announcement of the ordinance, which are obliterated in the council file but show in the ordinance document, indicate that it was both passed by the city council and signed by the mayor on the next day, September 12.
    Acknowledgement: The author thanks Michael Holland at the Los Angeles City Archives for invaluable assistance in locating and obtaining historic city documents, including these council files and the police records cited below.

4. For news accounts of convict registries in other California cities, see, for example:
     • Felon Law Passed by Beach City () — Santa Monica Enacts Emergency Statute for Convict Registration — Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1933
     • San Francisco Plans Ex-Convict Registration (), United Press, August 29, 1947
     • Ex-Convict Law Will Be Retained (), Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1966 (re Palm Springs)

5. What may have been the first case of such sexual entrapment, in 1919, is described in:
     • Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 by William N. Eskridge, Jr., Viking, May 2008 (Amazon), pg 59..61.

6. For background on Police Chief Davis, see:
     • History of the LAPD: 1926-1950, Los Angeles Police Department

7. For a news account of the LAPD’s sex crime index and psychiatric evaluations, see:
     • Sex Crimes Clinic Opens () — Chief Davis Starts Classification and Control Bureau — Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1938

8.  • Kidnap Suspect and Girl Hunted () — Special Squads Called; Description Given — Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1940

9. For news accounts on the proposal and adoption of the sex crime amendment, see:
     • Fingerprint Plan Before Board () — Proposal to Register All Sex Offenders Referred to Police Chief — Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1940
     • Sex Offenders Must Register () — City Council Adopts Antidegeneracy Law Urged by Police Board — Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1940

10. The descriptions of crimes are based on, for the city’s sex crime amendment in 1940:
     • Penal Code (), California Legislature, 1945 (Excerpts of sex laws) (This will be updated shortly with the 1940 Penal Code.)
and for the state law in 1947:
     • Penal Code (), California Legislature, 1947 (Excerpts of sex laws) and
     • Welfare and Institutions Code (), California Legislature, 1947 (Excerpt: § 702)

11. The crime statistics in two tables above are from:
     • Annual Report: 1933-34 (), Los Angeles Police Department (Excerpts re sex crimes), pg 52, 78..9. There are significant discrepancies between the data provided on page 52 and on pages 78..9. The table above in this report comparing crime in 1933..34 to that in 1940 gives the lower numbers from the 1933..34 LAPD annual report in order be most liberal in allowing substantiation of the PTA’s claim of a dramatic increase in sex crimes.
     • Annual Report: 1940 (), Los Angeles Police Department (Excerpts re sex crimes), pg 86..9
     • Annual Report: 1950 (), Los Angeles Police Department (Excerpts re sex crimes), pg 28..9

12.  • Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 To 1990 by Campbell Gibson, U.S. Bureau of the Census, June 1998 (Link), tables 16 and 17

13. For discussion and cases of lewd/dissolute vagrancy being used to harass and arrest homosexual and bisexual men, see:
     • Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 by William N. Eskridge, Jr., Viking, May 2008 (Amazon), pg 51, 58..9, 67, 74, 93..4, 97, 99, 103..4, 131, 133, 148, 172, 223, 388..9, 402, 404

14.  • P.T.A. Urged to Keep Faith in Democracy () — Tenth District Congress Speaker Outlines Duties of Citizenship — Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1940

15.  • Law Urged to Compel Sex Offenders' Roster (), Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1947

16. Documents on the passage of new state laws are in, for the sex crime registry in 1947:
     • California Legislation of 1947 re Sex or re Child Abuse (), Sex Offender Laws Research (Compiled from Statutes of California and Final History of Assembly and Senate)
and for the prohibition of employing people on the registry in schools in 1952 (as mentioned in the March 1952 LA Times article below):
     • California Legislation of 1952 re Sex or re Child Abuse (), Sex Offender Laws Research (Compiled from Statutes of California and Final History of Assembly and Senate)

17. For brief news mentions of the initiation of the state’s sex crime registry, see:
     • Sex Bill Passed (), Associated Press, June 20, 1947
     • Sex Offenders Checked (), Associated Press, July 8, 1947
     • New Sex Offense Law Operative (), Associated Press, September 19, 1947

18. Re addition of lewd vagrancy to the registry, the state archives website seems to be missing the statutes from the 1949 First Extraordinary Session. An inquiry has been sent about obtaining the document. In the meantime, the legislative change is referenced in:
     • Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 by William N. Eskridge, Jr., Viking, May 2008 (Amazon), footnote 49 on pg 433.

19. See the table above, Criminal Charges Filed for Sex Crimes in Los Angeles, 1950, and the text immediately following.

20. Years for states listed, except Florida, given in Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 by William N. Eskridge, Jr., Viking, May 2008 (Amazon), Appendix. Information on Florida and other history is given in National Conference on Sex Offender Registries, Bureau of Justice Statistics (US DoJ), April 1998 (Link), pg 45.

21.  • Abbott v. Los Angeles, California Supreme Court, 53 Cal. 2d 674, February 26, 1960

22.  • Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which is §170101 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, US Congress, September 13, 1994 (H.R. 103-3355, Public Law 103-322).

23.  • Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996, US Congress, October 3, 1996 (S. 104-1675, Public Law 104-236)

24.  • PROTECT Act of 2003, § 604(a)

25.  • Lawrence v. Texas (), US Supreme Court, June 26, 2003 (Link. 539 U.S. 558, Argued 2003 03 26, decided 2003 06 26)

26.  • Adam Walsh Act of 2006, §§ 111..25

27. See the SOLR report, Counting and Over-Counting the Registry.

28. For an account of Rustin’s sex crime, see:
     • Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 by William N. Eskridge, Jr., Viking, May 2008 (Amazon), pg 74.
    Photograph reproduced from previous page of the book, which credits it to the U.S. Library of Congress.

29.  • Era of Dictators Linked to Personality Phenomenon (), Associated Press, June 8, 1938

30.  • Sex Crime Brand? (), Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1951 (Letter to the editor)

31.  • Penalties Compared (), Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1949 (Letter to the editor)

32.  • Death Penalty Urged for Child Molesters () — Governor's Conference Calls for Drastic Laws — Associated Press, December 7, 1949

33.  • Sex Crime Curbing (), Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1950 (Letter to the editor)

34.  • America’s Most Insidious Moral Problem and How Homosexuality Endangers your Children (), Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1950 (Run on series of dates from 1950 08 23 .. 09 01.) (Display ad for magazine article.)
    The article promoted by these ads was

35.  • Tattooing Not Answer, Governor Believes (), United Press, May 29, 1951

36.  • Sex Crime Files (), Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1951 (Letter to the editor)

37.  • Life for Sex Offenders Approved by Assembly (), Associated Press, June 13, 1951

38.  • Knife-or-Life Sex Bill to Be Vetoed () — Warren Tells Decision After Opposition by Doctors and Lawyers — Associated Press, July 17, 1951

39.  • Bill Rules Out School Job for Sex Offenders (), Associated Press, March 13, 1952

40.  • Roundup Demanded (), Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1952 (Letter to the editor)

41.  • State Dept. Fires 16 as Homosexuals (), United Press, March 13, 1953

42.  • 425 Ousters in Morals Quiz by State Dept. Told (), Associated Press, April 12, 1953

43.  • Kinsey Deserves Praise for Trying to Study Sex Problems Objectively (), Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1953

44.  • U.S. Dismisses 1456 as Risks to Security; Five Hired Since 1952 Election (), Associated Press, October 23, 1953


Page posted on August 26, 2009, updated September 7, 2009, September 8, 2009.
Page copyright © 2009, SOL Research. All rights reserved.