Is More Information Always Better?

Sex-offender registration laws, known collectively and colloquially as “Megan’s Law,” frequently impose registration and public notification requirements on citizens who have been convicted of various sex crimes. The defenses of these laws usually hinge on a claimed high recidivism rate of sex offenders, coupled with the position that people in a community have a right to protect themselves and their children from risky neighbors.

Critics of the measures usually invoke what Robin has been calling an “unseen bias used to justify a seen bias.” They claim that people in a community are likely to discriminate against known convicted sex offenders along most or all dimensions of life, and that this discrimination, apart from being unjust on its own, may actually make it harder for those criminals to rehabilitate and become productive and law-abiding members of society. These problems, say critics, justify creating a “bias” by keeping the costs of acquiring this information high for the public.

These laws may offer an angle on the unseen bias/seen bias question more generally. It seems to me that the critics of Megan’s Law are right, for at least the following reasons:

– People economize on information. Those who view information about a neighbor’s sex crimes as more valuable than foregone information can be expected to visit the website, look through the newspaper listings, etc. But copious psychological research has documented that people greatly overestimate dangers from uncontrolled sources and from unnatural sources. (This white paper sums much of it up.) Accordingly, people can be expected to overestimate the safety benefits of knowing who is a sex offender, and accordingly over-acquire sex offender information. The opportunity cost for this information is real, fine-grained information about individuals, and the likely result is that convicted sex offenders will be subject to a level of social exclusion greater than would be justified by a rational estimate of their risk against the possible benefits from interacting with them.

– There has in fact been some astonishing discrimination against convicted sex offenders. One particularly dramatic example will suffice: residency restrictions have been enacted prohibiting offenders from living within a given (large) number of feet of schools, day care facilities, video arcades, and numerous other places. One court found that Iowa’s law forbade offenders from living in 77% of the state’s housing units — and pretty much everywhere except on farms. (Source: Prawfs.) I think most reasonable people would agree that barring someone from 77% of the residences in a state is prima facie an irrationally over-fearful response to these dangers. (If nothing else, it seems pretty clear that anyone who is dangerous enough to be kept out of three-fourths of the state is also dangerous enough to be kept in prison, or at least civilly committed.) But there’s a lot of this — in addition to legislative disabilities, these offenders are evicted, fired from jobs, and so forth, and not just when their housing or their job involves work with children or other vulnerable populations.

Here, as in (I strongly suspect) many other cases, the “unseen bias” isn’t so hard to see after all, if we bother to open our eyes.

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