By: SafeHome.org Research | Published: Aug 24, 2021
Jacob Wetterling’s family was not able to lay him to rest until 2016, 27 years after 11-year-old Wetterling went missing while on a bike ride with his younger brother and a friend. The 1989 abduction and murder of Wetterling sparked massive nationwide manhunts and would eventually lead to the creation of national and state sex offender registries.
Today, more than 750,000 names are listed on the 51 sex offender registries maintained by the states and the District of Columbia. As a follow-up on research we first conducted in 2019, our researchers consulted every state’s registry as well as analyzed sex crime and child abuse data to determine which states have the highest rates of sexual violence.
- A total of 780,407 people were listed on state sex offender registries as of May 2021. That’s an increase of about 32,000 from our previous analysis in 2019.
- Texas and California have the highest overall numbers of sex offenders, but Oregon and Montana have the highest rates after adjusting for population differences.
- Alaska has by far the highest population-adjusted rate of rape, and Vermont has the nation’s highest rate of child sexual abuse reports.
Number of Registered Offenders Rising
About 780,000 people are actively listed on states’ sex offender registries as of May 2021, according to our analysis. This represents an increase from the 752,000 people listed in our previous analysis.
By sheer volume, Texas has the highest number of people listed on its sex offender registry (nearly 100,000), followed by California (about 83,000), and New York in a distant third (about 42,000). Almost one in four registered sex offenders in the U.S. are registered in either Texas or California.
The District of Columbia’s registry lists just over 1,000 offenders, making it the smallest of the bunch. Vermont, Rhode Island, and North Dakota all have fewer than 2,000 people on their sex offender registries.
|Total registered sex offenders*|
|District of Columbia||1,044|
*As of May 2021
As we mentioned, Texas and California lead the country when it comes to sheer numbers, but the picture changes when adjusting for population differences. Oregon has the highest population-adjusted rate of sex offenders – about 749 per 100,000. Interestingly, this is identical to Oregon’s previous rate. Montana has the second-highest rate, while Arkansas, Alaska, and Wisconsin round out the top five.
|Registered sex offenders per 100,000 residents*|
|District of Columbia||148|
*As of May 2021
Four of the 10 states with the highest rates are in the West, which has the highest average rate of the four major geographic regions of the U.S. Three of the top 10 states are in the Midwest, which has the second-highest average rate. Each region has seen its average rate increase slightly since our previous analysis, but their order has not changed.
|Average registered sex offenders per 100,000 people by region and year*|
*October 2019 vs. May 2021
Alaska’s Rape Rate About Three Times Higher Than U.S.
In order to be listed on a state’s sex offender registry, an individual must be convicted of a sex-related violent crime, such as rape or sexual assault. States vary when it comes to the types and severity of sex-related crimes that will land someone on a sex offender registry.
However, rape and sexual assault are generally included on the list of offenses that require registration. Nationally, the number and rate of rapes declined in 2019 after several years of steady increases.
Rape is far more common in Alaska than any other state — by a disturbingly large margin. The rape rate in the U.S. in 2019 was about 43 per 100,000 people; Alaska’s was more than triple that rate.
|Rapes per 100,000 people|
|District of Columbia||49|
Alaska’s sexual assault rate is so high that it makes the other states in the top five, which all have rates far higher than the U.S. rate overall, seem far safer by comparison. However, Arkansas, South Dakota, Michigan, and Nevada all have sexual assault rates that are nearly double the U.S. rate. (Why is Alaska’s rate so high? That’s the subject of much research. Read more about it here.)
New Jersey has the lowest rate of rape and sexual assault crimes, with Connecticut, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina making up the rest of the bottom five. Nearly two dozen states have rape rates below the U.S. rate.
Vermont Has Highest Rate of Child Sex Abuse
The other major crime category that requires sex offender registration in most states is child molestation. A host of crimes can fall under this umbrella, including child sex abuse, exploitation, or sexual misconduct with a minor.
Sexual abuse of children is not a separate crime reported by the FBI. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collects data related to child abuse and neglect. About eight percent of children who were victims of abuse in the U.S. in 2019 suffered sexual abuse, according to the agency’s most recent publication.
Nearly 61,000 children were victims of sex abuse in 2019, which equates to a rate of 83 per 100,000 children in the U.S. Vermont has the highest population-adjusted rate of sexual abuse of children, while Arkansas is second, and Utah third. Our last analysis also found these three states having the highest rates.
Hawaii, South Dakota, and Idaho have the lowest sexual abuse rates, but 31 states have lower-than-average rates when compared to the nation as a whole.
|Child sex abuse victims per 100,000 children|
|District of Columbia||51|
Correlation does not equal causation. However, our analysis indicates that some states seem to have a clear problem with sexual violence affecting both children and adults. Nine states have above-average rates of individuals on sex offender registries and rates of rape and child sexual abuse. Another 14 states are over the national average in two of the three categories.
|States by number of above-average rates across categories|
|District of Columbia||1|
How effective these offender registries are at preventing sexual crimes is up for debate. After all, the man who confessed to and was later convicted of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction and murder would not have shown up on a registry because he had no prior convictions for sex crimes before he abducted and murdered Jacob.
Recent changes outlined by the Justice Department to the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) may help bring more clarity to state sex offender registries by, for example, specifying the information offenders are required to provide the states.
Our sources for rapes reported to law enforcement and rates of child sexual abuse were both listed, and you can follow the links above to explore more data surrounding those rates. We searched each state’s sex offender registry to calculate the number of people listed as of May 2021. In some cases, the information was not available from the state registry websites, and in those cases, we contacted law enforcement public information officers and other state officials who provided us with the most updated numbers in their states.
Individual state registries are easy to find via Google, and you can enter your address or zip code or the name of an offender on the national sex offender registry public website here to see who is registered near you.
It’s important to note these figures change on an ongoing basis. That’s because states have varying requirements when it comes to who has to register and how long their names must remain on the registry. We also should note that some states’ registries overlap between sex offenders and others convicted of violent crimes.