Note: most individual online state registries differ from each other significantly in the way they are organized. I will be using the New York registry structure as my example here, but the information can be applied to any state with a bit of detective work.
#1, and most important: The public registry was never intended to be "the" solution to child safety and should not be treated as such. 96% of sex crimes in New York state are committed by people who are not on the registry, and therefore, will not be listed. 90-97% of sex crimes against children are perpetrated by family members and trusted acquaintances and occur in the home, not by strangers or abductions. Finally, the recidivism rates for registered sex offenders are extremely low (New York calculated 3.5% in 2007). Keep these things in mind, use the registry with caution, and read on.
Why does this matter? Your child is far more likely to be abused by someone you know, who is not on the registry. Keep your eyes open and teach your kids about sexual abuse.
#2. Consider the offender's age at the time of the offense.
The age of the victim at the time of the offense is always provided. However, no state registry provides the age of the offender. Risa Sugarman, director of NY's Office of Sex Offender Management, repeatedly declined to comment about the reasoning behind portraying juveniles as adults to the general public. So, take things into your own hands. Find the offender's Date of Birth to determine their current age. Then look at the Date of Conviction to find out when the offender was sentenced. Sex crime trials/sentencing often take much longer than other types of crimes, and specifically, sex crimes are sometimes not reported until several years afterwards, and in the case of ongoing abuse, the age of the victim at the onset of the abuse will be what is listed. You won't be able to determine an exact age - but you can get a general idea.
Why does this matter? Children who victimize other children are extremely unlikely to ever re-offend. Many child offenders are simply instances of consensual sex with younger teens. Juvenile offenders pose little to no risk to children.
#3. Check the "relationship" between the victim and offender.
New York's registry usually indicates whether the victim and offender knew each other, towards the bottom of the page on the left side. It does not provide relationship details (husband-wife, sister-brother, friend, etc.) but even so, this is a very important factor and will be classified as "stranger" or "non-stranger."
Note: this only applies in instances of contact crimes.
Why does this matter? A person who has abused a family or acquaintance has a drastically reduced probability to re-offend than a person who has victimized a stranger.
#4. Get past the horrific-sounding charges and learn what they actually mean.
It would be impossible to list all of the possible charges here and explain their exact definitions, but certain key words can help make it a bit clearer. The terms "child" or "minor" (indecent liberties with a child, sexual assault of a minor child, lewd conduct with a child, etc.) means anyone under the age of legal consent, regardless if the acts were consensual. This is another situation when determining the age of the offender at the time is extremely important in understanding the nature of the crime. Furthermore, certain adjectives sometimes incorrectly allude to the use of force or violence. In some states, the term "aggravated" is applied automatically if the victim was a minor, even if no force was used. The terms "sexual battery", "sexual assault", and "sexual abuse" have been used to describe consensual acts between teenagers.
Why does this matter? Realizing not everyone on the registry is a violent criminal will help you remain focused on being alert and aware.
#5. There's a family behind that mug shot.
It's easy to think of people on the registry as creepy, anti-social transients without loved ones. Some of them are. But the majority of registrants are trying to rebuild their lives and are doing so with the assistance of their families, children, and other support systems. In New York state, the offender's home address, employment address, and vehicle information is provided publicly. But it won't tell you that there's a family living at that home address, there's a small business owner running that business, or that one of the vehicles actually belongs to a teen driver or a stay-at-home mom.
Why does this matter? Misinterpretation of the registry could harm a family not unlike your own.
If you would like to learn more about the facts behind sex crime, sex offenders, or the public registry, please get in touch with me, or visit my library of sex crime research.