Thinking Critically About Domestic Violence Offender Registries

Every year, somewhere in the country there is a proposal for a Domestic Violence Offender Registry. These proposals would create a publicly accessible database to list individuals who have been convicted of violent domestic violence crimes. The goal is for the registry to be a tool for prevention and accountability.

We don’t see that potential in a registry, however. What we do see are a list of unintended and harmful consequences for victims and their children. The following is a brief description of those concerns:

  • False Sense of Security: In actual implementation of a registry, only a very small percentage of abusers would ever be listed, meaning that the database would significantly underrepresent the number of individuals who are abusive and could potentially pose a threat to others. Domestic violence is a seriously underreported crime and few abusers ever enter the criminal justice system in the first place. Of those who are arrested, many are not convicted. Of those convicted, many plea down or are initially only facing a charge that would not require their listing in the registry. This is because most proposals plan to only include offenders convicted of violent felonies; and many proposals suggest including those convicted of three or more felonies related to domestic violence.
  • Privacy Concerns:  Due to the nature of intimate relationships in domestic violence cases, it is often impossible to publicly identify the offender without identifying the victim and their children. In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 60% of victims reported that they had not contacted police due to concerns for their privacy. Unfortunately, being identified as a victim can come with some social stigmas and can impact employment or housing options.
  • Barrier to Contacting 911: In addition to being concerned for their own privacy, many victims do not want a public wall of shame as an accountability option. They want the abuse to stop, but they may not want the abuser to be humiliated or for their family to feel exposed. They may also be concerned with an increase in safety risks if the abuser losing their job or is shamed due to the registry.
  • Safety Concerns: The registry idea is premised on the assumption that if someone found their intimate partner or love interest in the database, they can end the relationship and prevent themselves from being a victim. However, the most dangerous time for women and their children is when they attempt to leave or have left an abusive partner. The risk of assault, stalking, and homicide all increase at this time and it’s critical that individuals have the support and resources they need to separate from a partner safely.
  • Unnecessary Use of Funds:  Most states already make criminal records publicly available. Considering the limited scope of the proposals and who would be included, most of those records are already accessible.
  • Inclusion of Victim’s Names: Unfortunately, victims are sometimes arrested after they call for help. This may be because they fought back in self-defense or because both parties were arrested.  Regardless, including victims’ names in a registry discourages them from calling for help, has many harmful consequences, and undermines the fundamental purpose of the database.
  • Tool for Victim-Blaming: Domestic violence is an issue that is consistently minimized and misunderstood. Our societal responses continually look to victims to explain the behavior of the abuser, rather than truly trying to hold the offender accountable. Is it inevitable that with the existence of a registry, there will be questions posed to victims: Why didn’t you check the registry? Why didn’t you leave? Abusers tell convincing stories to rationalize, minimize, or excuse their prior behavior; and their charming personalities convince not just their intimate partners, but everyone around them. If we stop believing the myths that it’s extremely easy to accuse someone of a domestic violence crime they didn’t commit and that abusive behavior can be caused by alcoholism, we may start to believe victims and then look to the abuser for true accountability. Until we do that, a registry will only add to the current victim-blaming culture.

Arguments for a registry can be compelling and seemingly logical. They can also be deeply emotional when questioning whether its existence could have prevented a tragic homicide. Overall, the limitations of any registry to actually include every individual who has been violently abusive means there is a significant chance that it would not have been preventative and that it still will not be in the future. We do need preventative measures to address domestic violence, but they need to truly address the root causes of domestic violence, provide support to victims, and encourage people to contact help when they need it.